You most likely think of a video game when it comes to Virtual Reality (VR). However, virtual reality is good for many other applications, for example as medical treatment. In some cases, a virtual reality treatment works so well that it can replace pain medication. How can Virtual Reality be used in healthcare? Radar discussed this with professor and surgeon Harry van Goor.
In health, Virtual Reality is used for different types of pain. “Virtual reality can be valuable for both short-term and longer-term pain,” Van Goor says. but how does it work?
Fewer pain relievers
‘Suppose a child has a burn and the dressing needs to be changed. This treatment provides a short and fairly severe pain stimulus for which pain medication is usually administered. As soon as the child puts on the virtual reality goggles, pain medication is usually no longer necessary, because the virtual world provides enough of a distraction,” says Van Goor.
“Another example is pregnancy,” he continues. There are already many positive stories of women using virtual reality goggles during childbirth. As a result, they suffer much less from their contractions.’ With certain treatments, an added benefit is that people find that time passes much faster. “After someone wore the glasses for five hours, it looked like only two hours had passed.” Besides the fact that no or less pain medication is required, this time compression is also a nice added effect of a virtual reality treatment.
Will painkillers be a thing of the past from now on? No, not that either. “If a patient has to recover from an operation, he can’t wear virtual reality glasses all day, but also in this situation, the patient often needs less pain medication.” Van Goor explains that this is a big advantage, because pain relievers often have side effects. There are almost no side effects in a virtual reality treatment.
Virtual reality makes pain manageable
“And we use virtual reality for people who suffer from chronic pain to teach them how to deal with that pain. A virtual reality treatment can’t eliminate the pain, but it makes it more manageable.” According to Van Goor, studies show that chronic pain patients feel much healthier after their virtual reality treatment than before. “Of course it sounds crazy, because the pain is not really less, but because they can handle it better, they feel healthier.”
mental health care
Virtual reality treatments can also be used within mental health care, for example for an anxiety disorder or phobia. ‘Through ‘exposure therapy’ you bring people closer to their fear step by step. And the great thing about virtual reality is that it brings people into that virtual world very easily, face to face with their fear, while knowing they’re in the real world.”
With the help of mindfulness and relaxation exercises, virtual reality can also be used by people with (excessive) stress.
It all sounds very positive actually. Are there no downsides at all to this form of therapy? Van Goor can’t name many. ‘Of course, it is a disadvantage that you need VR glasses with content. In the Netherlands we always wonder who will pay for it.’ According to him, it is now being analyzed how costs for the patient can be kept as low as possible.
At the moment, virtual reality therapy that aims to reduce pain is not yet reimbursed. “There are some insurers that are piloting VR, but the focus is on fear, phobias and stress,” says Van Goor.
Are you eligible for virtual reality treatment?
“Suppose you break your wrist and that doll has to be taken to the emergency department, then I would ask for VR goggles,” says Van Goor. “There’s a good chance they’ll tell you that’s not possible, because they don’t have the glasses.” Still, according to him, there are already many hospitals that are gaining experience with VR, so he recommends always asking.
“It would be nice if you ask about VR goggles, the hospital says, ‘Yes, we do!’ but our ultimate goal is for them to offer it on their own.” We are currently working on that.’