Space & Innovation

Virtual Reality Kills Pain Like a Narcotic

Ever wish you could be magically transported away from pain? Virtual reality is the new drug.

In the face of raw pain and fear, doctors have a new drug at their fingertips: A virtual reality headset.

Virtual reality customized for use during medical procedures could end up being more than mere distraction. One recent study found that 20 minutes with a calm VR game dramatically reduced patients' acute pain, reports Technology Review.

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Now that virtual reality headsets are coming down in price, startups are going beyond immersive gaming. Los Angeles-based AppliedVR developed a VR platform specifically for clinical settings. They're working with partners Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Children's Hospital Los Angeles, and Stanford to test it as a drug-free alternative for pain from procedures like blood work, epidurals, and chemo.

One of their pain relief platforms is a straightforward game called Bear Blast, where a patient moves her head to toss balls at cartoon bears, according to Technology Review's Rachel Metz. That's it. There's no injury or death in the game. A Cedars-Sinai study showed that patients spending 20 minutes with VR software went from 5.5 on the pain scale to 4 -- about a 24 percent reduction.

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"It's not too different from what we see from giving narcotics," Brennan Spiegel, Cedars-Sinai director of health services research, told Metz. Next, the medical center plans to do a controlled trial with VR headsets.

Trying virtual reality as a narcotics alternative reminded me of St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in New Jersey. A feature in the New York Times last month described how, in an effort to prevent addiction, their busy ER started laughing gas, trigger-point injections, music therapy, and even an energy healer before using opioid painkillers. Those came in only as a last resort.

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Medical pros are quick to point out that virtual reality isn't the right approach for every patient, but I expect headsets will start showing up at more hospitals and in other places associated with pain, anxiety, and frustration. Airlines are already considering them for passengers. Better bring your own to the DMV, though. I doubt they'll have a loaner.