How Virtual Reality Is Transporting Patients from Painful Treatments

From Theory to Practice, Studies Explore How VR Could Bring Relief to Burn Care

Pain’s meant to tell us when there’s something in need of healing. In that way, it is a necessary part of life. Unfortunately, it can go beyond this function and leave us in a state of suffering.

While prescription pain medications provide temporary relief, they are not without their downsides. These wonder drugs can cause reduced cognitive function, lethargy and even addiction. To most people, none of this is new. What is new, though, is the recent developments on Virtual Reality (VR) technology.

As technologies go, VR isn’t a new concept. It’s long been the stuff of science fiction. For decades, developers have worked towards making it a part of our everyday lives. Entertainment value aside, VR technologies are changing our lives in unexpected ways.

Pain and its Various Forms

When medical professionals talk about pain, they generally break it into two types: acute and chronic pain. There are various other subgroups, of course, but for now, let’s focus on these two:

Acute Pain:

Have you ever had a sharp, even intense pain, due to illness or injury? It may be unbearable as it is happening but it dissipates as your body heals. This is classified as “acute pain”. Think broken bones, kidney stones, or a burst appendix.

Chronic Pain:

Most define “chronic pain” as any recurring pain that lasts longer than three months. This type of pain can be sporadic, debilitating and cause lasting trauma for the sufferer. It is this pain classification where VR advancements are making substantial headway.

Examples of this include pain related to arthritis or back injury.

The Gate Control Theory

In 1965, the Gate Control Theory was proposed as a better understanding of pain management. It suggested a correlation between the amount of focus given towards pain and how much the pain was experienced. Meaning if less focus was given towards pain, then the painful sensations could be reduced.

This was later expanded by the Multiple Resources Theory, which suggested that as human beings we have a limited amount of attention. So, our brains will prioritize which systems hold attention. By distracting the patients with other stimuli, like an engrossing and immersive virtual world, attention will be drawn away from painful sensory information.

Burn Care

An exciting possibility in VR pain relief is its potential for reducing pain during treatment for severe burns. If you’ve been fortunate to escape being severely burned, you may have never considered just how egregiously painful treatments for this type of wound can be.

In burn treatment, top layers of the skin need to be removed. It’s not hard to imagine how agonizing this is — enduring such treatment is horrific.

Because of this, researchers are conducting studies with younger patients in mind. Results were very positive. VR experiences were reported to reduce pain and anxiety in patients. Since the experience is more immersive than a regular video game, it made distraction from wound treatment easier to achieve.

When used with traditional prescription pain relievers, patients reported a reduction of pain and anxiety. It’s these possibilities which drive VR technologies forward. While the hard work of recovery is taken on by patients and medical specialist, suffering can be reduced.

Future Potential

Every day patients and clinicians discover the potential of VR in pain relief. However, there are hurdles to clear. Patients sometimes find VR headsets to be cumbersome and heavy. Add a mass of wires to the back and you can see how this could be a problem.

Developers are working on creative solutions. It won’t be long until systems are lighter and more convenient. Wireless systems will become industry standard.

The future’s looking bright for pain relief thanks to VR.


Julia A. Witherspoon is a freelance writer who has spent most of her career ghostwriting.

As a childhood burn survivor, she is interested in how Virtual Reality can reduce pain and trauma in medical procedures.


For more articles on how VR is changing healthcare and other industries, make sure to check the VRHealth Blog.

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