Researchers, along with the help of select hospitals and medical institutions in France are testing the use of virtual reality (VR) as a means of pain management for those undergoing treatment. With the suggestion VR could be used in the future as a viable and drug-free alternative to how hospitals account for pain relief during certain operations and procedures. Knock-on effects from this could also result in reduced recovery times, side effects and in some cases, the costs involved for both the hospital and the patient.
While the use of VR in this context is new, the principles underlying it are not. As this VR approach draws its inspiration from 'gate control theory' which in very basic terms suggests pain signals can be stopped before reaching the brain through the activation of alternative (non-pain) signals. In other words, exposure to certain cognitive, emotional and sensory stimuli is able to inhibit the signals associated with pain, causing the person to feel less, and in some cases, no pain. Healthy Mind (the startup behind this VR project) work off the basis that VR is not just able to adhere to the principles set out by gate control theory, but may actually prove to excel in this respect due to the fundamental mechanics of how the brain reacts during a VR-based experience.
In the current research cycle, patients visiting the select hospitals wear a VR headset while undergoing certain procedures and instead of relying on drugs to manage the pain, the patient's mind is distracted by the VR experience which may involve simply being in a more relaxing and peaceful environment, or by focusing the patient's attention on a more cognitive-demanding task. In either case, the result being less attention focused placed on the environment (the hospital setting), the act (the procedure) and the anticipated effect (the pain). So far the researchers state they have seen positive results from the use of VR with the data reinforced by feedback from participants who admit to feeling less pain. At present, there is no suggestion this will become more commonplace in the near future although it seems the researchers do expect the benefits to become even more evident over time.