Finding Relief With Virtual Realty
New program aims to reduce acute and chronic pain without using medication.
When you think about virtual reality, you may imagine playing a game and having fun, but in recent years, it has become a tool for reducing pain and improving quality of life in patients experiencing acute and chronic pain. Virtual reality allows patients to immerse themselves in a peaceful place, taking their minds away from the present pain in their bodies.
The Pain Assessment and Management Initiative at the University of Florida College of Medicine – Jacksonville department of emergency medicine has a goal to help patients reduce pain and reliance on pain medications. PAMI recently launched a pilot project called the Pain & Opioid Stewardship Education and Coaching. The newly funded project seeks to educate patients on complementary and alternative pain management techniques and help them gain a better understanding of pain so they feel more in control of their options. One of the techniques is virtual reality.
Douglas Suffield, MAcOM, DiplOM, LAc, is a pain education specialist working with PAMI on this project. He is a former emergency medical responder and is board-certified in acupuncture and oriental medicine. Suffield currently consults with UF Health Jacksonville patients, offering them a nonpharmacologic toolkit of pain management options, including a virtual reality viewer to take home.
“Virtual reality allows patients to escape their pain by transporting them into another world,” Suffield said. “Patients who have compromised mobility due to their pain often feel trapped, in their pain and in their environment. However, by utilizing virtual reality, these patients are able to explore far-off places, dive on coral reefs or experience things they never dreamed possible.”
The power of the mind
By educating his patients on the part of the brain linked to pain, Suffield can help them break the cycle of pain. Many patients report momentarily forgetting about their pain while using the virtual reality viewer, proving how powerful the mind really is.
Virtual reality has also been proved to help reduce pain and anxiety during procedures, burn or wound management, labor and delivery, and many other scenarios. Research shows that virtual reality sessions may reduce a patient’s perceived pain and increase their pain tolerance in acute and chronic pain. This can result in lowering the dosage and frequency of pain medication.
In addition to pain, virtual reality can also help lower stress and anxiety by serving as a distraction. Combining the virtual reality technology with concepts like mindfulness and meditation programs can help calm the patient and take their mind off their worries.
Other nonpharmacologic options, such as aromatherapy and deep breathing, pair well with virtual reality. Inhaling the aromas from essential oils may help stimulate a part of the brain that plays a role in emotions, behaviors, heart rate and blood pressure.
Connecting to a new world
To use virtual reality, patients need a viewer or headset, a smart device such as a phone or gaming console, and an app to access a range of videos specifically made for virtual reality.
Available headsets range from inexpensive options like Google Cardboard to high-tech, expensive options such as the Oculus. Some headsets can be used as a standalone device, but others, like Google Cardboard, require a smartphone or gaming console to pair with.
When UF Health Jacksonville patients who have consulted with Suffield are discharged, they are sent home with a special toolkit. Included in this kit are educational pamphlets, a hot/cold gel pack, aromatherapy, a stress ball and the Google Cardboard virtual reality viewer. With the viewer, patients download their app of choice in the Apple or Google Play app stores. There are free and paid options available, and the PAMI brochure on virtual reality offers up quick options as well.
Visit pami.emergency.med.jax.ufl.edu or email email@example.com if you are interested in learning more about virtual reality for pain management.
*Virtual reality viewers are funded by the Florida Department of Health, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the Florida Medical Malpractice Joint Underwriting Association.