How virtual reality may be an alternative to taking a pill

Research underway at HammondCare’s Greenwich Hospital Pain Clinic is testing whether affordable virtual reality technology could be an alternative to medications to relieve chronic pain in people with spinal cord injury.

Director of Pain Management Service Professor Philip Siddall and researcher Dr Phil Austin in collaboration with colleagues from The University of Sydney and Macquarie University are investigating the effectiveness of distraction-type virtual reality (VR) to relieve chronic pain and whether this exposure can result in noticeable changes in brain activity.

The study, which is funded by the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists, involves 16 patients experiencing neuropathic pain with spinal cord injuries viewing VR software through headsets, cheap enough for home use, with their responses measured.

Professor Siddall said that in the majority of spinal cord injury patients even the most recent and effective medications show only limited benefit and usually have intolerable side effects.

While the present research focused on spinal injury patients, Prof Siddall said affordable VR applications had the potential to offer relief for chronic pain triggered by a wide range of patients.

“What would be great is for patients wanting relief from a flare up of pain at home to know they can reach for some virtual reality goggles for help instead of popping a pill,” he said.

Osteopath Dr Austin, lead researcher in the study, said VR had been used effectively to treat acute pain arising from burn injuries but there has been only limited use in the treatment of chronic pain.

Dr Austin said virtual reality until recently has required sophisticated computers that are able to process the software required – limiting its use to laboratories or in-hospital settings.

“It is now possible to download ready-to-use applications that can be used on a laptop connected to a headset and this opens the door to applications that can be used at home and more suitable for the chronic pain,” he said.

The 16 patients taking part in the study will be immersed in the same video that offers the sensation of flying or hovering through forests at dawn with their responses measured.

The virtual reality research at Greenwich Hospital is among 69 different projects identified in HammondCare’s Research Report 2018 released this month.