Nov. 2, 2022 — People with functional dyspepsia — also called indigestion — often have stomach pain, nausea, frequent belching and other gastrointestinal symptoms after eating.
Technology to the rescue? An immersive, three-dimensional experience using a virtual reality headset for about 20 minutes a day for 2 weeks significantly improved symptoms and quality of life for indigestion sufferers compared to a control group, a new study finds.
“We thought that functional dyspepsia might be particularly amenable to benefiting from VR therapy,” says lead study researcher David Cangemi, MD, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. “Our study suggests that virtual reality may be an effective and safe new treatment. »
Although virtual reality has improved indigestion symptoms, researchers still don’t know exactly how it works. There are several theories: Immersion in another world keeps people away from stomachaches. Virtual reality can also change the signals sent between the brain and gut, easing discomfort and pain, Cangemi says.
The study was presented at the 2022 Annual Meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology in Charlotte, North Carolina. The research won an award for excellence in clinical research.
See more medical uses for virtual reality
In recent years there has been more interest in the medical uses of virtual reality. Virtual reality has reduced acute and chronic pain symptoms in various clinical settings, for example, Cangemi says.
Functional dyspepsia affects approximately 10% of the population. Some people report fewer symptoms after undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of talk therapy, but it can be expensive and access to it is limited. Furthermore, there are no FDA-approved medications specifically for dyspepsia. Some people try to manage symptoms with over-the-counter medications such as Prilosec, Nexium, or Prevacid or with prescription Lyrica, an anti-epileptic drug also used to treat pain.
But these agents can cause side effects, Cangemi says. “Therefore, new safe and effective treatment options for functional dyspepsia are sorely needed.”
In the first study looking at virtual reality for the treatment of indigestion, researchers randomly assigned 27 people to virtual reality and 10 to a control group. People in the treatment group could choose an active, passive or guided virtual reality experience, while people in the control group watched two-dimensional nature videos.
People used the VR headset a little more than once a day for an average of 23 minutes a day. The average age of the study participants was approximately 45 years and 81% were female.
People filled out questionnaires to report pain and quality of life at the start of the study and to track any changes at week 1 and week 2. Although symptoms became less severe in both groups at 2 weeks, people in the VR group improved significantly more on the standard symptom severity scale.
Similarly, quality of life scores improved for everyone in the study within 2 weeks, but the treatment group reported greater improvements in one measure of quality of life.
A total of 17 people, including 11 in the VR group, reported side effects, although none were considered serious. One person in the VR group withdrew from the study due to migraine.
Limitations of the study include the small number of participants and its short duration of 2 weeks. The researchers plan to study virtual reality in a larger number of people with functional dyspepsia and over a longer period of time. They also want to compare improvements between virtual reality and medication taken to relieve symptoms and/or determine whether the combination of technology and medication leads to even greater improvements.
“Very exciting” study.
“Because we don’t have many options, it’s very exciting to have a potential new treatment,” says Samir Shah, MD, chief of gastroenterology at Miriam Hospital in Providence, RI, who was not affiliated with the study.
“Not everyone can access cost-effective cognitive behavioral therapy,” he says. “If virtual reality is free and accessible to people, it’s another tool we’d like to have in our toolbox to help our patients with functional dyspepsia.”
Asked about the cost of VR technology, Shah noted that many smartphones can be equipped with a low-cost hardware to turn them into 3D virtual reality devices.
Future studies with larger numbers are warranted, says Shah, who is also president of the American College of Gastroenterology and clinical professor of medicine at Brown University.