Can Virtual Reality Help Relieve Pain? A Doctor Answers

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Virtual reality to help relieve pain?! Wow, talk about the future of medicine.

But how does it work, exactly? Internist and gastroenterologist, Dr. Roshini Raj, explains — starting with how pain is felt.

"When you touch something that's painful, or if you have a disease or injury, your body is going to send signals to your spinal cord, which then go up to your brain," the doctor explains. "Your brain receives those signals and processes them and says, 'Oh, there's something painful.' It's going to then send signals back down your body to cause a reaction — [like], 'Move my hand away from that painful stimulus.'"

How can virtual reality be used in medicine?

"As we know and we've all seen with this opioid crisis, pain is a huge issue in our country," Dr. Raj says. "So we need better treatments for pain — ones that don't have debilitating side effects and are not addictive."

Can virtual reality help people manage pain?

There's a lot of new research — like this study from the Public Library of Science, for example — that suggests that virtual reality can safely and effectively help with pain management, Dr. Raj claims.

"It's not exactly clear why it works, but the theory is your brain can't really process two things at once, so if you're immersing yourself in this virtual world, you're not going to feel the pain," the doctor says. "It's sort of like a child when they're holding their mother's hand when they're getting a shot."

"The concept of using virtual reality to make you somewhat distracted from pain [has] been used for women in childbirth who have pain [and] burn victims when they're changing their bandages," Dr. Raj continues. (Plus, she mentions there's a VR program that could help with hot flashes, too.) 

Watch the video above to see Dr. Raj use a virtual reality headset from XRHealth to immerse herself in a winter wonderland experience.

"I can almost feel [the snowflakes]; it's so realistic," she says while demonstrating a VR headset. "You can imagine, if you're immersing yourself in this world, you're not really going to be concentrating on any pain that you're having."

"This looks like a game," she continues, "but really, it's using meditation techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy techniques — a lot of things that will equip you to deal with pain even later when you take this off."

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