Is virtual reality a viable option for chronic pain management? A new scoping review suggests it has potential. Here, key findings for primary care.
Virtual reality (VR) is considered to be one of the most promising technological advances in he past decade. Although much of the focus has been on the use of VR for entertainment and educational purposes, it may have benefits for certain medical conditions including chronic pain.
A recent scoping review published in the journal Pain Medicine aimed to provide a summary of VR approaches examined in chronic primary and secondary pain conditions. In the slides below, find key findings of interest to primary care clinicians.
Review author screened studies performed prior to January 2021. A total of 2118 articles were identified, of which 44 fit inclusion criteria. Most studies used head-mounted devices with 3D-enabled glasses, sensory input devices, headphones for noise canceling and sound, head-, and/or body-tracking sensors to provide multisensory experience.
Studies Analyzed VR for the Following Painful Conditions:
Chronic low back pain (CLBP): VR was associated with reductions in pain intensity and increasing lumbar spine flexion when combined with other standard treatment modalities (eg, physical therapy).
VR is a promising therapy particularly for conditions such as CRPS, PLS, and SCIP, which are among the most difficult pain syndromes to manage and have limited effective treatments. Potential efficacy of VR for these conditions fits with other treatments, such as mirror therapy, that appear promising and focus on creating the illusion of a healthy limb while performing tasks.
Rather than replacing any single therapeutic modality, VR may be most beneficial when used to enhance the benefits of other treatments shown to be effective for chronic pain management (eg, physical therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy). Exactly how VR exerts its beneficial effects for chronic pain conditions is unclear. Whether it results in changes in the brain due to neuroplasticity, modifies learned pain behaviors through distraction, or a combination of both requires further study.
Reference: Austin PD: The analgesic effects of virtual reality for people with chronic pain: a scoping review. Pain Med. 2022;23:105-121.