Despite all efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, this crisis continues to destroy lives and contribute to the growing gap in life expectancy by income and education in the United States. But it appears that some relief may come from an unexpected source: virtual reality. Anyone who thinks virtual reality is just a sideshow for gamers should pay close attention to the stunning results it’s achieving in the medical world.
A virtual reality game called SnowWorld — in which patients throw snowballs at snowmen while virtually immersed in a white, snow-covered environment — has been used for more than 20 years to relieve the pain experienced by burn victims, and it’s been surprisingly effective. As David Rhew, the chief medical officer at Samsung Electronics America, recently explained to me, the promising results from burn management have led to broader use of virtual reality in an array of medical settings, including the type of chronic pain that leads to opioid abuse.
In one trial at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center involving 100 patients experiencing significant chronic pain, half the patients played a 15-minute virtual reality game called Pain RelieVR, in which the patient tries to shoot balls at moving objects in an immersive 360-degree environment. The other half were shown a video of relaxing nature scenes.
Sixty-five percent of the virtual reality patients experienced pain relief, compared with 40 percent in the control group, and the change among the game-players was more substantial. Virtual reality seems to do more than a two-dimensional movie to shift the brain’s experience in a way that helps patients handle pain.
To be sure, this study involved only a brief virtual reality experience, and it did not randomly assign the patients to each group. But other studies of virtual reality in chronic pain management are showing similar results. The conclusion of a review done several years ago remains true today: “Virtual reality has consistently been demonstrated to decrease pain, anxiety, unpleasantness, time spent thinking about pain and perceived time spent in a medical procedure.”
Perhaps the most remarkable medical results from virtual reality involve spinal cord injuries. In a small study of eight Brazilian patients who were paralyzed below the waist, researchers used virtual reality, a robotic suit and tactile limb feedback to train the subjects’ brains to develop alternative neural pathways to the affected limbs. After a year, all of them experienced some improvement, and half were upgraded from full lower-body paralysis to partial. (None of these patients were able to walk independently, but they were closer to being able to do so. One patient could move her legs by herself while supported by a harness.)
There’s some concern that virtual reality, if used to treat opioid addicts, might become the focus of new kind of addiction, but even so, it wouldn’t be as deadly as the very real one we currently face.
The use of virtual reality as a medical tool is in its infancy, and the results to date should be viewed as promising rather than definitive, especially given the exceedingly small sample sizes in studies so far. Nonetheless, there’s reason to be hopeful, since the results are fully consistent with the well-researched placebo effect in addressing pain, depression and other health problems.
The brain is powerful, perhaps even able to reawaken limbs that have been paralyzed for years. Virtual reality might be able to help channel that power in beneficial ways.
Peter Orszag is a vice chairman of investment banking at Lazard.