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.

Are You Mad as Hell Yet?

By Fred Brown, Guest Columnist

I experienced in mid-life something that I wish on no one. Because of this event, I live with a disease called chronic pain.  I am considered a “pain patient” by the medical community, but I try not to see myself as such. I am a human being, living my life to the best of my ability.

I had several surgeries to fix a problem in my spine.  These procedures not only failed to fix the problem, they left me with severe and chronic intractable pain.

There is a way to relieve my pain and make me more functional, and it has been part of my life for over two decades: Opioid pain medication prescribed by a board-certified pain management physician.

Opioids give me quality of life and let me be a spouse, father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

The problem I have is that there are people in state and federal agencies, along with legislators in our government, who think they know better than my trained doctor. These officials make claims without any science to back them up. They don’t want me to take opioids or say I should only use them at very low doses that do not work.

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There are millions of legitimate chronic pain patients like me who need these drugs. They are essentially being told, “Sorry, we do not want your physician to treat you the way they know best. And if you don’t do what we think is best for you, we can do nasty things to you and your doctor.”

These officials can use state and federal powers to take away your physician’s license to practice medicine. And if that is not enough, they can even put them in jail.  The government is persecuting doctors for legitimately prescribing opioids for chronic pain.

There is strong evidence -- using our own government's information -- to prove physicians have not caused the crisis. The writing of opioid prescriptions has been coming down for several years. What has been increasing are patients turning to street drugs or, even worse. committing suicide. They are not able to obtain relief the right way, so they go to the streets!

There has been so much disinformation about opioid medication that our media has distributed to the public.   Over and over, we hear that physicians have overprescribed opioids and caused the “opioid crisis.”

Over 40 years ago, there was a motion picture made called “Network.”  In the movie, there is a fantastic scene where an anchorman named Howard Beale becomes so frustrated and angry during a show that he shouts over and over, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Then he encourages Americans across the country to open their windows and do the same. Millions do.

To my fellow patients, advocates, friends, doctors and other healthcare workers. It is time to write, call and communicate with your Senator and Congressmen.

Like Howard Beale, tell them you’re mad as hell and you’re not going to take it anymore.   

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Fred Brown lives with degenerative disc disease, bone spurs, stenosis and other spinal problems. He is a patient advocate and volunteer with The Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain (ATIP). 

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to editor@painnewsnetwork.org. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

A Survey for Canadian Pain Patients

By Ann Marie Gaudon, PNN Columnist

The last few years have been very difficult for pain patients in Canada. If you are one of the severely pained, you well know that government officials, in a misguided attempt to deal with the problems of addiction and overdose deaths, decided that doctors have been over-prescribing opioid medications and that pain patients taking opioid therapy were the cause of the problems.

The Chronic Pain Association of Canada (CPAC) knows this was never true.

Given the fact that overdose deaths continue to increase as opioid prescriptions have been drastically reduced, government policy has been a total failure while causing tremendous harm to innocent victims.

As a volunteer for CPAC, I want to let you know that our goal is to educate the public, people in medicine, regulatory bodies, and Health Canada on the nature and severity of chronic pain and its treatment. We are working hard behind the scenes to spread awareness with the correct information. No hype, no hysteria – just the facts.

CPAC has created an anonymous survey for Canadians needing opioid medication for pain treatment. We are running out of time and need your help.

The survey is designed to gain a snapshot of how your medical care has unfolded over the past couple of years and how this has affected your overall health. It will take approximately 5 to 10 minutes to complete.

If you are a Canadian pain patient in need of opioid medicines or a caretaker of same, this survey is for you. Please share it widely.

This survey is anonymous: we will not collect personal information, your email address or your computer's IP address.

Once we have collected the data, it will be shared with Health Canada, other government health officials, the media, and all of our allies. If you are not on our emailing list, please join us here.

The time is NOW for your valuable input. Take and/or share the survey by clicking clicking here.

Thank you for helping Canada’s only national advocate for pain patients. We can’t do it without you!

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Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for over 30 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, visit her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

A Pained Life: We Need More Than Opioids

By Carol Levy, PNN Columnist

There is no question we need to be active and stay on top of what the CDC and other federal agencies are doing that impedes our ability to get opioid medication.  For many chronic pain patients, opioids are the only effective pain reliever.

I wonder though: In focusing almost all of our energies on the issue of opioids, are we ignoring another front that needs to be addressed?

Cancer seems like the best analogy to me, maybe the only one. There are many forms of cancer but at the end of the day they all involve the excessive growth of cells that spread into surrounding tissue. All cancers, to my knowledge, start from that one errant misfire.

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In recent years we have seen cancer treatments change and become more specific -- this combination of chemotherapy for lung cancer, a different type of chemo for sarcoma or leukemia, and so on. But ultimately, they are all some form of chemotherapy.

Unlike cancer, we can’t put all of our eggs into one basket. There is no universal type of “chronic pain.” We need to have different treatments and regimens for each pain disorder.

Trigeminal neuralgia and other cranial neuropathies have a different cause and mechanism than rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases. So do multiple sclerosis and arachnoiditis.  Conditions like fibromyalgia and Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) are still poorly understood and difficult to treat.

Unlike cancer, we need to have multiple approaches to chronic pain syndromes. No one has come up with anything better than opioids for pain control and relief – at least not yet -- so this choice must remain accessible. But we must also not lose sight of the need for better treatments and possibly even cures for every pain condition.

We have to let it be known that we need opioids, not because they make us high, but because there is nothing else out there to take their place.  It is well past time for the government to understand, if they want to end the use of opioids, they must first ensure that there are other viable options out there.

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Carol Jay Levy has lived with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial pain disorder, for over 30 years. She is the author of “A Pained Life, A Chronic Pain Journey.”  Carol is the moderator of the Facebook support group “Women in Pain Awareness.” Her blog “The Pained Life” can be found here.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Empathy Must Be Included in Pain Management Education

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

The National Institutes for Health (NIH) is seeking input on how to improve medical education in the fields of pain management and the treatment of opioid use disorder.

Although the NIH is primarily asking healthcare professionals and researchers to weigh in, comments from the general public are also welcome. The information will be used to update the NIH’s Centers for Excellence in Pain Education, which is developing pain management curriculum for medical, dental, nursing and pharmacy schools to improve how students are taught about pain and its treatment.

If you are a person in pain, or love someone who is, your input is what all healthcare providers should hear. You can see the Request for Information (RFI) by clicking here. The link includes an email address to use to contribute your thoughts.

This is an opportunity to tell the NIH what you would like to see included in pain education, or what needs to be taught regarding opioid misuse or abuse. People often want to be heard. This is the time to let the NIH know what you believe is important to teach all healthcare providers.

Potential educational topics could include:

  • What should be the primary goal of pain treatment

  • The role of empathy, rather than animus, in treating people with pain

  • The power of trust, rather than suspicion and disbelief, in the therapeutic relationship

  • Techniques to reduce the stigma of pain, disability and opioid use disorder

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Therapies of the Heart

My comments to the NIH will include some of my strongly-held beliefs, including:

Pain therapy must include compassion. A therapeutic relationship may not be considered mainstream medical treatment, but it is crucial to pain management. It includes acceptance, compassion, listening, respect, encouragement, trust, kindness, patience, and being fully present.

I call these the therapies of the heart. They are simple, yet vital, components of a broad-based approach to treating the whole person.

Too often, people in pain are abandoned by health care professionals, family members, and friends. They need to be supported by all the key people in their lives and treated by medical professionals who are adequately trained.

Education should convey that pain isn't just biological. It is psychological, social, and spiritual. A healthcare professional who treats pain must internalize this concept to provide the most humanistic treatment possible.

The fact that withdrawal does not mean addiction is a concept too few people in healthcare understand. Any education that discusses opioids must make clear the differences between addiction and withdrawal. Providers also must learn that a person who experiences withdrawal is not necessarily addicted.

I will recommend to the NIH that their program require all participants watch Travis Rieder’s TED Talk on opioid withdrawal:

I will also ask that pain management curriculum make it clear that babies cannot be born addicted. The fact that the media commonly uses the phrase "addicted babies" in place of "babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome" only reinforces the misunderstanding of what clinical withdrawal means.

Additionally, education should address misconceptions about people in pain, and how chronic pain affects families and other relationships. Educational content should include a discussion of the losses that accompany chronic pain -- to the person in pain and also to their family members.

Providers need to be trained to understand that pain is personal and individualized; therefore, treatment must be individualized, too. What works for one person may not work for another.

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary, “It Hurts Until You Die.”

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Finding Safe Shores From Suicidal Thoughts

By Mia Maysack, PNN columnist

When you have lost or almost lost loved ones to suicide, it changes you.  

My first experience with this happened at a young age and I took it very personally, even though it was an intimate, personal decision that didn't involve me. I guess that is one of the things that hurt most about it.  

Time passed, life was experienced and as my health conditions worsened, I found myself on the stone-cold ground of rock bottom -- which granted me a bittersweet comprehension of the temptations to end never-ending pain.

Years later, someone I cared for took her own life, after secretly enduring the late stages of terminal cancer. I’d witnessed that kind of suffering before during my days working in hospice care. This further reshaped my mind around the concept.

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Of course, none of us want to lose anyone, especially in a way such as this, but the question does remain.  Which could be considered more “selfish” -- someone eliminating their life or someone else not wanting them to?

“I want to leave this earth because I feel as though I just can't do it anymore. It truly has nothing to do with anyone else. I am solely human and have reached my absolute breaking point.  Ultimately, I make my own decisions -- though it’s impossible to comprehend the ripple effect my actions will have on others.”

“I don't want you to leave this earth because I care so much about you. I know you feel as though you cannot do this anymore, but I am here for you and have a difficult time understanding why that isn't enough. I would do anything to ease your suffering. There are others who care and need you, so stick around for their sake.”   

The dialogue may as well be night and day, two entirely different realities.  Both lack consideration for the other on either end of the spectrum.  

Some pain sufferers may not have even one support person in their lives who they can turn to when the going gets tough, yet many seem to think the best way to deal with suicide is by not talking about it. They fear that by discussing it and making it real, somehow that will trigger chaos and we'll begin dropping like flies once the seed has been planted. 

The intent of this article is the exact opposite.

Recently I took part in a class where this topic was discussed in a small group session. To my left was a person who had been in pain their entire life. They were over it, pun fully intended, literally in the process of orchestrating a move to someplace where assisted suicide is legal. 

To my right was someone also in pain, who was squeamish about the subject and could not begin to relate to it.

Then there was me, a splash of irony right there in the middle.

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Not too long ago, I took a mental health day at a local beach along Lake Michigan. When I am able to swim, my skills are strong. But as I approached my targeted distance, weather conditions shifted and I was both pulled under and pushed back. It was as though I'd been swept into a riptide and under current at the same time.  

At this point, I was exhausted and in low temperature water far longer than anticipated. Swirling thoughts crashed into my mind, much like the waves that had begun to cover my face. If I'm not able to move into shore I will die.

I've made it through worse, and there's no way this is how it's going to end-- not without a fight. So I powered through the water at full force until I felt as I could no longer – which is when the tip of my toes could finally touch the sand bar.  With a touch of hypothermia and major shock to the system, I made it.     

This is everyday life with chronic pain and illness. The emotions can submerge and escort us to the very edge of sanity, a tsunami that can swallow us whole and leave us fighting for every breath. Sometimes these ailments are much like anchors on our feet, shackling us to inevitable trenches of darkness and gloom.    

Many who can relate to these experiences are traumatized by judgmental stigma, so it's important that we acknowledge it is not only understandable but also normal to feel defeated. 

Observing these feelings as opposed to just absorbing them is a way of co-existence. The relationship with oneself is critical. At some of our lowest points, it is within us to choose the direction of our sails and head to safer shores.   

When navigating the treachery of these waters, our pursuit of quality of life against all odds presents itself as proof that we can make it through this and that we're in it together. We just gotta Keep Our Heads Up!  

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, PLEASE REACH OUT 

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Mia Maysack lives with chronic migraine, cluster headaches and fibromyalgia. Mia is the founder of Keepin’ Our Heads Up, a Facebook advocacy and support group, and Peace & Love, a wellness and life coaching practice for the chronically ill.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

The Future of CBD

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

Is CBD a medical miracle or just another over-hyped health fad? The cannabinoid known as cannabidiol (CBD) is appearing in hundreds of foods, drinks and health products – even though we know little about its potential harms and benefits. Recent research runs the gamut, suggesting that CBD can fight superbug infections or cause liver damage.

A review of 35 clinical studies found CBD effective in treating anxiety and epilepsy, but there was no evidence it works for diabetes, Crohn's disease, ocular hypertension, fatty liver disease or chronic pain.

But there may be some untapped possibilities. Ingenious bench science and clinical research is improving our understanding of how CBD acts in the body, which is leading to new drugs with impressive potential for treating serious illnesses.

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How Does CBD Work?

In simple terms, no one knows. CBD doesn’t seem to act directly on the cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2, although it does have some activity in serotonin 5HT1A, GRP55, and TRPV1 receptors that regulate anxiety, inflammation and pain sensation.  

Although none of these receptors is directly involved in seizures, CBD is being used successfully to treat epilepsy and other seizure disorders. CBD in the highly-purified form Epidiolex is FDA-approved as “add-on therapy” for Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, two rare childhood seizure disorders.

New pharmacological research suggests that CBD may reduce seizure frequency through a “drug-drug interaction” rather than as an anti-seizure medication in and of itself.

In other words, whatever CBD is doing probably involves a host of small nudges often described as endocannabinoid activity. This makes for a complex set of interactions and contraindications, many still not well understood.  

New Drugs Derived from CBD

CBD acts on too many receptors in too many ways to make for predictable clinical effects. And at high doses CBD is potentially toxic to both the liver and nerves over the long term. But understanding this activity is helping guide research.

A potent CBD-derived compound called KLS-13019 has a more targeted effect on receptors and is being studied as a treatment for some neurological conditions.

Even more promising is EHP-101, an oral formulation of a synthetic CBD molecule that helped repair myelin around damaged nerve fibers in mice. This is an exciting if preliminary finding that may have potential for treating multiple sclerosis (MS). Emerald Health Therapeutics is planning to launch a Phase II clinical trial of EHP-101 in MS patients by the end of the year.

“Restoring the myelin sheath around nerves, or remyelination, would be considered a ‘Holy Grail’ outcome in the treatment of MS,” Jim DeMesa, MD, CEO of Emerald Health Pharmaceuticals, said in a statement. “These preclinical data provide the first evidence of remyelination with our lead clinical-stage drug product candidate and provide promising evidence for the possibility to treat, and potentially reverse, several forms of MS in the future.”

CBD itself may have uses as a wellness product for otherwise healthy people. It is certainly an appealing indulgence. But CBD-derived products that avoid the complications of CBD while taking advantage of specific activity learned from studying CBD are showing great promise.

New drugs replace old drugs all the time. Aspirin was outclassed by ibuprofen and naproxen, barbiturates by benzodiazepines, and MAO inhibitors by TCAs and more recently SSRIs. CBD may fade as a pharmaceutical, but its descendants could be the wonder drugs that CBD is often touted as.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.