Virtual reality (VR) technology allows users to immerse themselves in a three-dimensional computer-generated world, and despite being originally developed as an entertainment tool, over the last two decades VR has found a variety of applications in health care. Among these applications, which include treatment of phobias and anxiety disorders; cognitive and physical rehabilitation; pain management; treatment of eating disorders and obesity; surgical training and aid in surgical planning and performance, VR has shown promise in several clinical trials assessing its possible utility as a distraction tool to alleviate pain and distress during medical procedures.
A review article, recently published in The Clinical Journal of Pain, provides a comprehensive overview of the clinical studies using VR during several painful and stressful medical procedures, including burn injury treatments, chemotherapy, surgery, dental treatment, and other diagnostic and therapeutic procedures.
“VR has proven to be very effective in relieving pain, even in patients subjected to extremely painful procedures, who do not receive proper relief with pharmacological treatments alone,” says Antonio Giordano, M.D., Ph.D., of the Sbarro Health Research Organization at Temple University, and University of Siena, Italy, and corresponding author of the article. “Moreover, VR decreases cancer-related symptoms in different settings, including during chemotherapy. This is remarkable, considering that identifying interventions able to enhance treatment tolerance is crucial to improve both patients’ quality of life and compliance to therapies, which, in turn, can increase their chances of recovery.”
“Despite these promising results, we wanted to point out that further studies involving a greater number of patients are needed both to generalize the observations and to establish predictive factors to select patients who are more likely to benefit from VR,” says study author Paola Indovina of the Institute for High Performance Computing and Networking, ICAR-CNR, Naples. “Moreover, more efforts should be put into the evaluation of changes in physiological factors, which might provide objective confirmations of the patients’ self-report measures. Also, more studies should explore VR efficacy after several repeated sessions to assess possible long-term benefits of the VR intervention.”
“It is also important to note that most studies so far used relatively low-tech VR systems compared to the state-of-the-art systems available on the market today, which are more immersive, more user-friendly, more portable, and much less expensive,” adds coauthor Giuseppe De Pietro, Director of the Institute for High Performance Computing and Networking, ICAR-CNR, Naples, Italy. “Therefore, VR has the potential both to become more effective and to find a more widespread use.”
Indovina P, Barone D, Gallo L, Chirico A, De Pietro G, Giordano A. Virtual reality as a distraction intervention to relieve pain and distress during medical procedures: a comprehensive literature review. Clin J Pain, 2018.