You might think that virtual reality is strictly entertainment, but it could dramatically change how people living with cancer experience their treatment. The healthcare industry has been fast adopting virtual reality technology in all sorts of realms. But especially promising is the way the technology may be able to help people suffering from cancer and other ailments deal with both acute and chronic pain.
A study from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center published earlier this year, for example, found virtual reality to substantially decrease pain in hospital patients. “We believe virtual reality hijacks the senses, but in a good way,” Brennan Spiegel, MD, MSHS, said. Spiegel serves as the director of Cedars-Sinai’s Health Service Research and was the study’s lead author.
Spiegel’s study took 100 pain people suffering from all sorts of conditions. A full quarter of them said that their pain was unbearable. They were split in half, with one group being given 3D virtual reality headsets, while the other group was shown a nature video. People in both groups reported drops in pain, but the VR group’s pain dropped by an average of 24% while the other group’s pain scores dropped 13.2%.
That’s because being immersed in a virtual world, researchers have found, engages their visual and auditory senses, and how we unconsciously experience movement. This engagement of multiple senses distracts people’s minds from fully processing pain.
And that’s the thing that virtual reality technology is so good at, and why hospitals are turning to it more and more. It gives a complete 360-degree virtual experience. You just sit or lie down, and strap on a virtual reality headset and you’re transported to another world.
People living with cancer, moreover, appreciate it. One person receiving treatment at Cedars-Sinai, who was often in a lot of pain from a cancerous tumor that pushed against his spine, was initially skeptical that virtual reality would make a difference. But he was soon convinced and found himself reaching for the VR headset to play 3D virtual reality games to ward off intense pain.
“I didn’t think it was gonna help that much, but it helps distract me from the pain and it’s pretty fun,” the patient said. “Sometimes you still feel the pain, but you kinda brush it off by concentrating on the game and staying focused.”
In the past, virtual reality devices priced themselves out of people’s hands. The technology was just too expensive to be cost-effective. Fifteen or 20 years ago, a VR headset cost thousands of dollars. But recent advances in technology have made headsets more affordable for hospitals. They now go for a few hundred dollars. Some programs, moreover, can even be accessed with just a smartphone.