There was an article in a recent volume of The Clinical Journal of Pain (yep, there is such a thing) that looked at using “immersive virtual reality,” or IVR, in the treatment of acute pain. IVR is best known in the gaming world, where using a head-mounted display, headphones, and other technologies to engage all the senses (sight, sound, smell, touch) to transport the player to another world. Turns out, it works pretty well for acute pain, which we sort of already knew. Burn centers have been using virtual reality programs for quite a while to reduce the pain of dressing changes and debridement – among the most painful procedures there are. Distraction can be a very effective way to cope with pain. Many people with chronic pain have discovered that if they are completely involved in an activity, they have less pain.
Even more interesting, the research indicates that function also improves with IVR, at least a little, at least for a short time. Often, as function improves, pain improves, and vice versa. It’s a beneficial cycle, the opposite direction of the vicious cycle of increased pain –> decreased function –> increased pain.
So, can IVR help with chronic pain? We don’t really know that yet, because there is not much research on it. But we do have a fair amount of research on using meditation, prayer, music, and other ways of taking one’s attention off pain and onto something more enjoyable. And there are lots of people who have found that when they are doing certain activities, they have less pain. Many people tell me that they don’t notice their pain, or are less bothered by it, when they are painting or reading or gardening or playing with a child or talking with friends, or anything else they really enjoy and can become immersed in. Many people tell me that their pain is worse in the middle of the night – when we can’t do many of the things that really engage us, and all we have left to focus on is pain.
Immersive virtual reality currently is expensive and requires a lot of equipment, so is probably not going to be a regular part of pain management in the near future. The good news is that, with practice, the human brain is pretty good at creating its own virtual reality, for free. This is the idea behind guided imagery and visualization exercises, which can be very effective in reducing pain levels, for a time, with practice. Many people with chronic pain have already found a number of activities that allow them to “forget” about their pain, for a little while. While these distractions will obviously not cure anything, they can provide a needed respite. And if you can teach your brain to focus on something besides pain, then the intensity of pain and suffering is reduced. It’s not easy, but it is possible.
What things can you do that can distract you from your pain?
At North Shore Pain Management we provide advanced, evidence based, multidisciplinary and cost effective pain management. Our goal is to improve your ability to return to the activities you have been missing as well as provide a meaningful reduction in pain.