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Virtual reality and pain management

Virtual Reality vs Pain: How VR is revolutionising pain management.

Patient wearing virtual reality headset for pain management

VR reduces Chronic Pain by 33% and can help 34% of UK population

Virtual Reality (VR) has long been associated with gaming and entertainment. However, its transformative impact on the medical field, particularly for the purpose of pain management, is nothing short of revolutionary. In this article, we’ll journey from the icy realms of SnowWorld to the innovative solutions of Reducept, showing how VR is reshaping our approach to both acute and chronic pain.

The Genesis of VR in Pain Management: SnowWorld

Snowworld VR by researchers Hunter Hoffman and David Patterson

Between bandage changes and wound cleanings, burn patients tend to experience some of the most intense pain known in medicine. SnowWorld was therefore developed in 2003 by researchers Hunter Hoffman and David Patterson at UW to combat the intense pain that burn patients were experiencing. Opioids were not even coming close to removing the intense pain signals and were interfering with the patients’ abilities to engage in other important parts of treatment such as physiotherapy. Moreover, opioids work by dulling the pain, but when the pain is intense, severe, and constant, there is a clear limit for how much pain they can intercept. See here for research showing VR’s impact on pain vs opioids.

To provide relief for their patients, Dr.Patterson and Dr.Hoffman created an icy VR tundra called SnowWorld that would not only distract patients from the pain, but also transform some of the sensations from burning pain to the burn of freezing cold. See for yourself:


While some may wonder how much of an effect throwing snowballs at penguins can truly have on pain, the results are astounding: burn patients experienced 35-50% less pain when immersed in VR. This was also backed up by fMRI scans, which showed half as much pain-related brain activity while immersed in VR.
Images taken from an fMRI scan showing areas of the brain affected by pain, and how they shrink when the patient is immersed in a virtual reality world. (Dr. Sam Sharar/University of Washington)

What is acute pain?

Pain is a warning for our brain that we are in danger. It typically lasts for a short duration and is often associated with a specific injury, surgery, or illness. By distracting the brain with an immersive environment, it blocks the pain signals from reaching the brain as the brain’s attention is focused elsewhere. Moreover, patients would often experience PTSD symptoms around their injuries and from the stress of past procedures. SnowWorld would help patients avoid those painful flashbacks by diverting their attention away from those past traumas and to have them focus instead on penguins and the landscape.

The Evolution: VR's Expanding Role in Pain Management

Since SnowWorld, companies like SyncVR Medical have broadened the horizons of VR in pain management. From injections and surgeries to chemotherapy and hysteroscopies, VR’s applications are diverse. Offering a range of distraction and immersion techniques, including games, mindfulness, and medical hypnosis, VR targets pain responses from multiple angles, ensuring a holistic approach to pain relief.

Chronic Pain: The Silent Epidemic and VR's Response

While most of the research around pain management in VR has been addressing acute pain, chronic pain is a greater and often ignored issue, despite 34% of the UK population suffering from chronic pain and 12% of them-experiencing that pain to a degree that significantly impacts their daily life. A clinical trial in 2016 looked at treating chronic pain patients through a VR environment called “Cool!”. It had 30 participants who were given a 5 minute session with the application where they were travelling through several different landscapes tossing fish or orbs at otters.
Cool Game VR
This virtual reality game was developed to alleviate stress and anxiety (Cool! )
This trial is particularly interesting because it not only resulted in pain being reduced during the VR session, but also resulted in patients experiencing a 33% reduction in pain after the session had ended. So, not only is VR capable of distracting a patient during a painful experience, it can also have a lasting effect on Chronic Pain.

How we at SyncVR are transforming chronic pain relief:

At SyncVR, we use applications called Reducept and HypnoVR for managing chronic pain. They use diverse cognitive therapies including ACT, mindfulness, and hypnotherapy to give patients tools to manage their chronic pain.

It starts out by educating patients about the biological mechanisms behind chronic pain and then moves on to a series of games designed to give patients the feeling of control over their pain. It also uses EMDR – a therapy traditionally used in trauma patients to help decrease their response to their pain while being in a safe environment.

The goal is to teach patients skills to manage their pain so that after several sessions, they can then apply those skills even if they are not using the headset at the moment of experiencing pain.


The Future: Collaborative Research and Expanding Horizons

SyncVR Medical is at the forefront of understanding VR’s capabilities. As a platform, we are able to provide a wide variety of distraction and immersion techniques, ranging from games to mindfulness and even medical hypnosis. These target the pain responses from a wide variety of angles and allow for a more comprehensive approach to pain management.

We are also open for collaboration with researchers interested in understanding how VR can help patients reduce chronic pain, particularly in how the different populations will respond to various VR treatments. Our collaboration with Dr. Stephen Quinn from Imperial College London is also a testament to our commitment to advancing VR’s role in healthcare. As we continue to explore and innovate, we invite researchers and medical professionals to join us in this exciting journey.

Want to learn more about what VR can do for your healthcare organisation?