In October, President Trump finally declared what much of the country has known for a long time: the opioid crisis is a public health emergency. Yet while nearly 100 Americans die from opioid-related deaths each day, chronic pain continues to vex more than 25 million Americans. But the fast-developing world of virtual reality (VR) technology is providing relief to patients in clinical trials, hospitals, and soon in our own homes. This growing industry of pain-relieving VR may be at least part of the solution to the opioid epidemic—without the addictive, potentially fatal side effects.
How VR Reduces Pain
The first successful experiments using VR to control pain, conducted in 1996, focused on the acute pain of burn victims. Particularly during bandage changes, where the patients were not at rest, opioids such as morphine failed to control the intense pain. By the early 2000s, cognitive psychologists Hunter Hoffman and Dave Patterson, of the University of Washington in Seattle, had developed a VR computer game called SnowWorld to help patients ignore pain signals while enjoying the intriguing game scenarios. They placed patients inside a $90,000 unit with an eight-pound helmet linked to a refrigerator-sized computer to play the game.
The virtual reality (VR) headset, as any gamer will tell you, has undergone a myriad of transformations over the years, some clunky, some sleek, but all sharing the common themes of disorientation and motion sickness, known in this context as simulation sickness.
Simulation sickness is similar to motion sickness, except that your brain thinks you’re moving, while your body knows it’s sitting still. As technology journalist Lauren Orsini described it, “the eyes see motion but the inner ear feels nothing. It’s motion sickness in reverse,” and it was pretty much the expected adjunct to any VR adventure.