Virtual reality shows potential as drug-free alternative to medication © Getty Images

Virtual reality shows potential as drug-free alternative to medication

Reluctant to pop a paracetamol for that headache? Virtual reality might offer an alternative solution.

Researchers in California have shown that virtual reality technology can provide a drug-free way to ease pain in hospital patients.

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Virtual reality (VR) has already been used in medical settings to help relieve anxiety, distract patients while wounds are treated, and reduce pain during physical therapy in burns patients.

In order to find out more about the effectiveness of VR pain relief, researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles carried out a randomised trial, allocating 120 patients who had moderate or severe pain to two groups. One group received a library of VR experiences on a Samsung Gear Oculus headset, while the other group tuned their TVs to a health and wellness channel that included guided relaxations and poetry readings.

The participants were asked to use the VR equipment or watch TV for at least three 10-minute sessions a day, over two consecutive days. The VR simulations available included a guided, nature-themed meditation; a ‘Bear Blast’ game which involved firing at animated targets; and a simulated flight of the Wright brothers’ plane over rural Ohio. Before and after the sessions, the patients rated their pain on a scale from 1 to 10.

The study found that VR was significantly better at reducing pain than TV. “The VR outperformed the control condition and demonstrated benefits over several days of use,” said Dr Brennan Spiegel.

The patients with severe pain actually benefited the most from the treatment, which suggests that VR may help to reduce requirements for opioid pain relief, which can be highly addictive.

Exactly how VR relieves pain is not yet understood. The most popular explanation at present is that the rich, immersive experience of VR engages the brain and overwhelms the senses, restricting the processing of pain signals elsewhere in the body.

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