A (Virtual) Reality Without Pain?

NY Times Magazine, Helen Ouyang 5/22/22: Can Virtual Reality Help Ease Chronic Pain?

This lengthy article describes the emerging therapy of virtual reality to help with chronic pain. Some of the article focuses on chronic abdominal pain.

Here are some excerpts:

  • Brennan Spiegel, a gastroenterologist and researcher at Cedars-Sinai .. runs one of the largest academic medical initiatives studying virtual reality as a health therapy…
  • As Daniel Clauw, who runs the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center at the University of Michigan, put it in a 2019 lecture, there isn’t “any drug in any chronic-pain state that works in better than one out of three people.” He went on to say that nonpharmacological therapy should instead be “front and center in managing chronic pain — rather than opioids, or for that matter, any of our drugs…”
  • In November, the Food and Drug Administration gave authorization for the first V.R. product to be marketed for the treatment of chronic pain.
  • [In one] virtual environment … built specifically for patients with chronic gastrointestinal symptoms…[the patient] used hand controls. Inside a virtual clinic, a robot named Maia — short for “mixed-reality artificial-intelligence assistant” — guided her to a young blond woman, who expressed frustration with abdominal symptoms. [The patient] examined the [virtual] patient with her virtual hands, placing a stethoscope on her stomach to listen to the sounds of digestion. Maia explained how the brain and the gut work together. As she spoke, an image of a brain popped up, connected to intestines by a yellow flashing line. When the brain became stressed, it turned fuchsia in color, and the yellow line to the gut metamorphosed into a stream of fire...
  • Scientists knew that the brain has some control over pain, but that insight was mostly confined to the situations described by Patrick Wall’s and Ronald Melzack’s gate-control theory, which helps explain why, say, a person running from a house on fire may not realize that she sprained her ankle until she is a safe distance away. The brain, so intent on escaping the fire, shuts the gate, blocking pain signals coming up the spinal cord from the ankle. “You could close the gate,” says Clifford Woolf, a neurobiology professor at Harvard Medical School who worked in Wall’s lab, but “essentially there was nothing about the opposite possibility — which is that the brain, independent of the periphery, could be a generator of pain.”
  • “Woolf was conducting his own experiment in Wall’s lab, applying painful stimuli to rats’ hind legs. The animals developed large “fields” of pain that could easily be activated months later with a light tap or gentle warmth, even in spots that weren’t being touched directly. “I was changing the function of the nervous system, such that its properties were altered,” Woolf says. “Pain was not simply a measure of some peripheral pathology,” he concluded; it “could also be the consequence of abnormal amplification within the nervous system — this was the phenomenon of central sensitization.”
  • V.R.’s “unique ability to convey a sense of just ‘being there,’ wherever there happens to be,” as he [Spiegel] puts it in his book “VRx: How Virtual Therapeutics Will Revolutionize Medicine.” “All of its revolutionary potential tumbles out of its ability to compel a person’s brain and body to react to a different reality.” 
  • RelieVRx also has modules that prompt patients to redirect their attention through game play or by allowing scenes — waves washing onto a sunny coast, say — to soothe their nervous systems. The average session lasts seven minutes, and patients are directed to do just one a day for eight weeks
  • A recently published study by researchers affiliated with the company [AppliedVR], for which they recruited subjects during the pandemic through Facebook ads and pain organizations, reported an average drop in chronic back pain by nearly 43 percent for the RelieVRx group compared with 25 percent for the control group. For those who used RelieVRx, pain also interfered less with their activity and sleep. Three months after the last V.R. session, these gains were mostly found to endure
  • In chronic pain, the body part that hurts may be undamaged and even seem healthy; what’s altered is the area of the brain that corresponds to its anatomical location...
  • If doctors do start prescribing V.R., there’s another hurdle to clear: Who will pay for it? 

My take: I am looking forward to the pediatric studies which will be needed before this technology can be promoted. I would think pediatric patients with chronic pain may respond even more favorably than adults. If this technology were in our clinic, I am certain that are “no show” rate would be lower.

Related blog posts:

This could be me in a virtual reality. Picture taken at Connie’s Photo Park in Madrid, NM.

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