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Virtual Reality Helping Manage Real Pain Like Crohn’s Disease

35-year old Harmon Clarke suffers from Crohn’s disease – a chronic inflammation of the intestines causing immense pain and discomfort. This condition often causes Clarke to visit the hospital for surgery and treatment. However, this time, when he visited Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre, the treatment he received was quite different. He was quickly hooked up to a VR headset to undergo a clinical trial.

The virtual reality headset simulated a scene where Clarke felt as if he was flying over a picturesque waterfall in Iceland. He claims he could almost feel the sun and the environment. Doctors explained to him that the experimental therapy may help him handle the pain and get some sleep.

Clarke attests that it indeed made his time at the hospital much easier than during previous episodes. While the technology did not nullify the post-surgical pain, Clarke says it distracted his mind from the suffering to such an extent that he missed a dose of pain medication without repercussions.

Dr. Brennan Spiegel at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Image credit: Jenna Schoenefeld for USN&WR

Dr Brennan Spiegel, leader of the study and the director of health services at Cedars-Sinai, believes VR technology holds much more potential than its gaming aspect. He may not be wrong in his assertion as medical researchers all over the world are leveraging virtual reality headsets to conduct physical rehabilitation and treat phobias.

Randomised trials conducted in 2017 did provide some evidence to its efficacy. However, the study concluded deeper research on the matter to indicate just how useful it is against such health conditions. Further study can also reveal whether it is a cost-effective form of treatment.

Where does VR therapy prove useful?

VR technology can help make certain forms of treatment more accessible to patients. For instance, it can be a safe medium to relive traumatic experiences. In exposure therapy, patients who are afraid of specific conditions are made to face these situations to rid them of their irrational fear. Using VR headsets, doctors can now conduct exposure therapy, but in a safe environment.

A real-world example of VR’s integration into exposure therapy is the case of Chris Merkle, a Marine veteran who suffered from PTSD due to multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. After undergoing conventional psychotherapy unsuccessfully, he tried a virtual reality experience which simulated a normal day in the life of soldiers serving abroad.

In the simulation, Merkle’s team was under fire and extreme stress. He claims that even though it was a difficult thing to experience, even in the simulated form, it helped him open up. He feels that the experience assisted him to understand that no matter what happened, he was still alive and he had survived the horrors of war.

Besides these applications, VR headsets may provide a way to reduce the sensation of pain during labour. The constant visual stimuli can swing the attention away from the pain, resulting in more manageable levels of pain without the use of medication. According to another study, 82% of the women who were hooked to VR headsets during labour claimed that they completely enjoyed the experience.

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