Treating pain with virtual reality

Pilot studies are underway


Physicians may soon have another tool to help patients deal with pain: virtual reality (VR) therapy. A New York Times article earlier this year described this new treatment option and the way immersive VR experiences seem to crowd pain sensations out of the brain.

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Jeffrey I. Gold, PhD, director of the Children’s Outcomes, Research, and Evaluation program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, told the newspaper that VR was “like an endogenous narcotic providing a physiological and chemical burst that causes you to feel good.”

So far, VR has been most successfully used in cases of acute pain. “But it can also enhance the effectiveness of established techniques like physical therapy, hypnosis and cognitive behavioral therapy to treat debilitating chronic pain,” the New York Times reported.

“Using VR as an adjunct, we can teach coping skills, techniques patients can use on their own that will help diminish chronic pain,” said Hunter Hoffman, PhD, principal investigator at the Human Photonics Laboratory of the University of Washington, Seattle. “Learning changes the brain and gives patients something that continues to work when they take the helmet off. When patients realize their pain isn’t inevitable, they’re more receptive to doing physical therapy exercises and more likely to move on their own.”

Others with experience in VR say the technique can foster mindfulness, which teaches the mind how to quiet the body and nervous system through breathing.

Pilot studies of VR and pain management are underway, and software companies are developing programs that create therapeutic VR environments.


1. “Virtual Reality as Therapy for Pain.” Jane E. Brody, New York Times. 2019 Apr 29.

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