Study: Virtual Reality Can Relieve Severe Chronic Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Therapeutic virtual reality (VR) may finally be on the verge of going mainstream. For the first time, research has shown that VR can help relieve a variety of pain conditions and is most effective for severe chronic pain.

 "I believe that one day soon VR will be part of every doctor's tool kit for pain management," says Brennan Spiegel, MD, director of Health Service Research at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Spiegel is lead author of a new study published in PLOS ONE, which looked at the effectiveness of VR in 120 hospitalized adult patients suffering from neurological, orthopedic, gastrointestinal or cancer pain. All of the patients were being treated with opioid medication and had a pain score of at least three on a 1 to 10 pain scale.

“There’s been decades of research testing VR in highly controlled environments — university laboratories, the psychology department and so on,” Brennan told MobiHealthNews. “This study is really letting VR free and seeing what happens. What I mean by that is it’s a pragmatic study where we didn’t want to control every single element of the study, but literally just see [what would happen] if we were to give it to a broad range of people in the hospital with pain; how would it do compared to a control condition already available in the hospital?”

Half of the patients were given VR goggles with a variety of relaxing and meditative experiences to choose from. They were advised to use the headsets three times a day for 10 minutes — and as needed for breakthrough pain – for three days.

The other participants were instructed to tune their hospital room TVs to a health and wellness channel that offered programs on guided-relaxation, yoga and meditation.

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Several times a day, nurses asked all the patients to rate their pain on the pain scale.

The study found that on-demand use of VR resulted in a small but statistically significant improvement in pain scores compared to the TV group, with patients in the VR group averaging 1.7 points lower on the pain scale. VR patients with the most severe baseline pain of 7 or more reduced their pain scores three points lower than the TV group.

"This is our largest and most ambitious VR study to date," Spiegel said. "Our results support previous research that VR can meaningfully reduce pain using a nonaddictive, drug-free treatment for people experience a range of different pain conditions."

In the previous study, patients who watched a 15-minute nature video had a 13% drop in their pain scores, while patients who played an animated game had a 24% decline.

Spiegel says the current study showed that VR can do more than just distract the mind from pain, but may even block pain signals from reaching the brain by overwhelming the brain with visual and audio stimulation.  

Several patients found VR so helpful in managing their pain that they now use it regularly at home. One of them is 70-year old Joseph Norris, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, who suffers from chronic pain in his spine, back and hips. Norris started using VR six months ago, and today uses his VR headset once a week to help relax and distract. 

"VR is a tool I use to successfully divert attention away from my pain, and it helps me reinforce my breathing pattern," he said.

There remains a great deal of skepticism about VR, particularly among older patients. Spiegel and his colleagues evaluated nearly 600 patients for the study, but many chose not to participate.

“Patients expressed varying degrees of skepticism, fear, sense of vulnerability, concern regarding psychological consequences, or simply not wanting to be bothered by using the equipment. We believe it is important for the digital health community to recognize that despite the great promise of health technology, clinical realities can undermine expectations,” he wrote.    

Spiegel and his research team are currently involved in a study following patients using VR in their homes for 60 days.

1 in 5 Multiple Sclerosis Patients Misdiagnosed

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Nearly one in five patients who are told they have multiple sclerosis are misdiagnosed with the autoimmune disease, according to a new study of patients referred to two MS treatment centers in Los Angeles. The patients spent an average of four years being treated for MS before receiving a correct diagnosis.

MS is a chronic disease that attacks the body’s central nervous system, causing pain, numbness, difficulty walking, paralysis, loss of vision, and fatigue. The symptoms are similar to those of several other chronic conditions – including neuropathy, migraine and fibromyalgia – which often leads to a misdiagnosis.

Researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Multiple Sclerosis and Neuroimmunology Center analyzed the cases of 241 patients who had been diagnosed by other physicians and then referred to the Cedars-Sinai or UCLA MS clinics.

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Their findings, published in the journal Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders, indicate that 43 of the 241 patients (18%) with a previous diagnosis of MS did not meet the criteria for the disease.

"The diagnosis of MS is tricky. Both the symptoms and MRI testing results can look like other conditions, such as stroke, migraines and vitamin B12 deficiency," said lead author Marwa Kaisey, MD. "You have to rule out any other diagnoses, and it's not a perfect science."

The most common correct diagnoses was migraine (16%), radiologically isolated syndrome (RIS) (9%), spondylopathy (7%), and neuropathy (7%). RIS is a condition in which patients do not experience symptoms of MS even though their imaging tests look similar to those of MS patients.

The misdiagnosed patients received approximately 110 patient-years of unnecessary MS disease modifying drugs. Nearly half received medications that carry a known risk of developing progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, a potentially fatal brain infection.

"I've seen patients suffering side effects from the medication they were taking for a disease they didn't have," Kaisey said. "Meanwhile, they weren't getting treatment for what they did have. The cost to the patient is huge — medically, psychologically, financially."

The cost of disease modifying medications for an MS patient in the U.S. exceeds $50,000 a year. Investigators estimated that the unnecessary treatments identified in this study alone cost almost $10 million. 

Researchers hope the results of the study will lead to new biomarkers and improved imaging techniques to help prevent future MS misdiagnoses.

A similar study in 2016 also found that MS patients were often misdiagnosed. One third of the patients were misdiagnosed for a decade or longer, most took unnecessary and potentially harmful medication to treat a disease they didn't have, and some even participated in clinical trials for experimental MS therapies. About a third suffered from morbid thoughts of death.

Virtual Reality Relieves Pain in Hospitalized Patients

By Pat Anson, Editor

Virtual reality therapy significantly reduced both acute and chronic pain in hospitalized patients, according to a new study that adds to a growing body of evidence that virtual reality (VR) can give temporary relief to pain patients. The study is published online in the journal JMIR Mental Health.

Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles enrolled 100 patients in the study who had an average pain score of 5.4 on a pain scale of zero to 10.

They suffered from a wide variety of conditions, including gastrointestinal, cardiac, neurological and post-surgical pain.

Fifty patients watched a 15-minute nature video on a computer screen that included mountain scenes and running streams, accompanied by calming music.

The other 50 patients wore virtual reality goggles to watch a 15-minute animated game called Pain RelieVR, which was specifically designed to treat patients who are bed bound or have limited mobility.

The game takes place in a fantasy world where users shoot imaginary balls at a wide range of moving objects by maneuvering their heads toward the targets. The game also uses motivational music, positively reinforcing sounds and direct messages to patients.

The patients who watched the nature video had a 13 percent drop in their pain scores, while patients who watched the virtual reality game had a 24 percent decline in their pain levels. The VR group had no change in their blood pressure or heart rate.

“We found that use of a 15-minute VR intervention in a diverse group of hospitalized patients resulted in statistically significant and clinically relevant improvements in pain versus a control distraction video without triggering adverse events or altering vital signs,” wrote lead author Brennan Spiegel, MD, director of Cedars-Sinai’s Health Service Research.

“These results indicate that VR may be an effective adjunctive therapy to complement traditional pain management protocols in hospitalized patients.”

scenes from virtual reality game

scenes from virtual reality game

Researchers say it’s unknown exactly how VR works to reduce pain levels, but one explanation is simple distraction.

“When the mind is deeply engaged in an immersive experience, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to perceive stimuli outside of the field of attention. By ‘hijacking’ the auditory, visual, and proprioception senses, VR is thought to create an immersive distraction that restricts the mind from processing pain,” said Spiegel.

Because the VR therapy was only 15 minutes long, Spiegel says lengthening the period of pain reduction might require sustained and repeated exposure to a variety of virtual reality content.

Another small study of VR therapy, published in PLOS, found that just five minutes of exposure to a virtual reality application reduced chronic pain by an average of 33 percent.

VR therapy is not for everyone. It may induce dizziness, vomiting, nausea or epileptic seizures, so patients have to be screened and monitored for side effects. Another barrier is age related. Two-thirds of the people who were eligible for the Cedars-Sinai study were unwilling to try VR therapy, particularly older individuals.  

A larger study is underway at the hospital to measure the impact of VR therapy on the use of pain medications, length of hospital stay and post-discharge satisfaction scores.

The Pain RelieVR game was created by AppliedVR , a Los Angeles based company that is developing a variety of virtual reality content to help treat pain, depression and anxiety. Below is a promotional video released by the company.