Virtual Reality Video Game Helps Reduce Pain Without Medication, Researchers Say

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — The future of pain relief may come from somewhere you least expect it – in the form of a virtual reality video game.

Researchers say all you have to do is distract your brain.

As CBS2’s Dr. Max Gomez reported, anyone who has tried virtual reality knows it can transport our minds to incredible digital worlds. Maybe you noticed that when you were in those fantasy worlds, you were not thinking about your knee pain or backbone.

It is that same effect that is becoming pain therapy.

Kevin Walsh finds relief from his pain by immersing his mind into a 360-degree world of snow and ice. His back was severely burned in a small explosion at work.

“There is one time when I did it doing wound care, when they have to peel off my bandages while I’m there, and they peeled off a couple bandages and I didn’t even really notice,” Walsh said.

Walsh is one of a number of patients at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle using virtual reality to help manage their pain.

“It’s a means to pull people’s attention away from very painful procedures,” said Dr. David Patterson of the University of Washington.

But virtual reality does more than distract the brain. Pain is a complex interaction between pain signals and the way the brain processes and interprets them.

By occupying parts of the brain with other tasks, virtual reality may prevent some nerve signals from being interpreted as pain.

“The areas of the brain that light up with pain light up less, and they’re just not processing as much,” Patterson said.

Patterson uses a game called “Snow World.” Using VR goggles, patients hit targets with snowballs – taking their minds off their procedures.

“Overall, we’re seeing 35 percent reductions in pain is pretty typical, where you see somebody’s pain drop from severe to moderate,” said Dr. Hunter Hoffman of the UW Human Photonics Lab.

That pain reduction translates to less pain medication – especially opioids – which means lower risk of addiction and possibly preventing some overdoses.

For patients like Walsh, any relief from the pain can help on the road to recovery.

Some people take the view that they can handle pain and so refuse pain medication, .But pain releases chemicals that can actually interfere with healing.

That is why painkillers are medically necessary – but virtual reality does it all without drugs.

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