This article appears in Healthy Living Winter 2018.

With the country in the midst of an opioid crisis, the future of pain management might be with virtual reality.

Hospitals around the country are finding success using virtual reality programs as a way to manage pain and ease anxiety in all manner of medicine — with burn patients and wound care, during gynecological procedures and giving birth, during routine medical procedures like cast removal and to ease anxiety before surgery.

Children’s Hospital Los Angeles is using virtual reality to ease the pain and anxiety associated with blood draws. Shriners Hospitals for Children in Galveston, Texas, uses virtual reality to ease the excruciating pain in children with major burn injuries. Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles is testing the effectiveness of virtual reality with hospitalized patients who report pain scores higher than 3 on a 10-point scale.

“Results indicate virtual reality may be an effective tool along with traditional pain management protocols,” said Dr. Brennan Spiegel, director of Cedars-Sinai Health Services Research. “This gives doctors and patients more options than medication alone.”

How does it work?

“We believe virtual reality hijacks the senses, but in a good way,” Spiegel said. “It creates an immersive distraction that stops the mind from processing pain, offering a drug-free supplement to traditional pain management.”

“Think about basic attention. If your brain and mind is engaged” in the virtual reality world, “the brain pathways are focused at the activity at hand. The mind shifts its focus toward the pleasant activity and away from the unpleasant aches, pain or anxiety,” said Dr. Jeffrey Gold, director of the Pediatric Pain Management Clinic at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

So strapping on a pair of VR goggles and immersing yourself in an imaginative world swamps your brain with visual and auditory signals that dampen its ability to process pain.

A recent randomized study at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles found that virtual reality was successful in significantly reducing patients’ and parents’ perception of acute pain, anxiety and general distress during blood draws in patients ages 10 to 21.

At Shriners Hospitals for Children, studies done with the University of Washington and funding from the National Institutes of Science found that virtual reality was effective at reducing pain by 40 to 50 percent in pediatric patients, said Dr. Walter Meyer, director of Psychology and Psychiatry, Shriners Burns Hospital in Galveston.

Next steps

The power of virtual reality was discovered over 20 years ago when pioneer Hunter Hoffman, a researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle, began studying its applications with burn victims.

It’s been a revolution, said Dr. David Patterson, whose work exploring the use of virtual distraction with severely burned children was given a National Institutes of Science grant.

Twenty years ago, headsets weighed 10 pounds or more, were hooked up to a computer the size of a large home appliance and cost about $30,000, said Patterson. Now much lighter googles cost about $300.

The next step is building up the software, and companies like AppliedVR are popping up to meet the need.

“Although VR had research that demonstrated benefits, it never was practical or feasible to use in the real world,” said Joshua Sackman, president and co-founder, AppliedVR. “Now, thanks to companies like Samsung and Facebook, the same transformative experiences can be delivered on a smartphone, gaming console or personal computer.”

Traditionally used to treat acute (short term) pain, new research focuses on using virtual reality to treat chronic (long-lasting) pain, Patterson said.

“By combining virtual reality with hypnosis, we can give people the tools to manage pain over longer time periods,” Patterson said.