Can you use virtual reality (VR) to manage chronic pain? A study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research says that it works. The study, which was sponsored by the Los Angeles-based startup AppliedVR, set out to determine the effectiveness of AppliedVR’s immersive reality system RelieVRx, which is used primarily for at-home pain treatment. The participants were people who suffer from chronic lower back pain (CLBP), and the study was a follow-up to research on an 8-week VR program. While there’s inherent bias in a company studying its own products, the results did yield objectively notable results.
How does the RelieVRx program work? Using VR headsets, users immerse in virtual reality experiences designed to alter one’s responses to chronic pain: physically, cognitively, and emotionally. The approach centers on neuroplasticity, which is loosely defined as the brain’s ability to adapt and rewire its neural networks in response to an experience. There are countless examples of neuroplasticity, from structural changes in the brains of people who learn new languages to well-practiced musicians who show increased gray matter. With the RelieVRx program, users enter virtual worlds that shift over an 8-week period with a focus on a series of topics: Breath and Pain, the Mind and Pain Relief, Attention and Distraction, Relaxation, Shaping the Nervous System Toward Relief, Notice the Body, Moving Forward, and Journey to Wellness.
The study surveyed 188 RelieVRx participants immediately after treatment for CLBP, and then 1, 2, and 6 months later. A control group used a 2D placebo experience, viewing non-immersive scenes of nature through VR headsets after their treatments. The survey results show that 6 months after treatment, the VR group reported a mean percentage change in their pain intensity of -31.3%, while the placebo group registered a -15.9% change. The study also found that the VR group had fewer pain-related interferences with sleep and daily activities compared to the control group.
These findings come with a big caveat; many participants in both the VR group and the placebo group guessed which group they were in, making the study not as truly double-blind as intended. And the program’s participants were predominantly college-educated white females, so there’s no real measure of how effective the treatment is among patients with different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. Even with these shortcomings, the study does give testament to the fact that virtual reality can be a viable non-pharmaceutical solution to pain management.