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Virtual Reality, Pain Relief, and Lupus

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Can virtual reality be used to treat lupus and lupus pain? The answer is yes!

Virtual reality is incredible! VR headsets can bring people into in-depth virtual worlds with beautiful graphics, audio and music that can come from anywhere in the space. People can transport themselves anywhere they wish, almost, from the vast reaches of outer space to the inside of the human brain. Some can even allow players to feel and touch the virtual space, and change it with their hands, motions, or even their breathing. And the variety of virtual reality spaces (games and otherwise) is constantly growing and improving. For a moment, reality can be almost completely escaped or enhanced. 

Virtual reality has been used to encourage exercise, relieve boredom, train new skills, interact with others across the world, and just to have fun. However, did you know that it can be used medically as a treatment? It can – Virtual reality has a track record of helping patients combat and overcome pain and may have many other applications still being discovered.

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Virtual Reality and Pain Relief

Chronic pain is notoriously difficult to treat with opioids, which don’t touch the root causes of the pain. For people with lupus, medications that target the immune system and reduce inflammation – and thus the damage that causes the pain – are more effective than pain reducing medications alone. However, for people who need more, it is becoming more accepted that therapies that target the mind and the personal factors that cause stress. Virtual reality is used for one such therapy.

Virtual reality is already so used to distract child patients, people with cancer undergoing chemotherapy, and burn victims from the pain. The cancer patients who used VR had fewer symptoms, too, though whether this was because of the stress relief or some other factor, no one knows yet for sure. 

Lupus pain comes from dryness, rashes, digestive issues, and swelling caused by inflammation in the joints. Most lupus medications target the inflammation or relieve pain, but it’s not enough for many people. Fortunately, various studies have shown that this immersion in virtual reality is a much better pain reliever or preventer than most other options. Virtual reality is also used as a tool for explaining medical conditions and procedures. However, VR is more than just a tool for distraction during unpleasant medical procedures, but the medicine itself!

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How Does VR Work?

VR might work according to the gate theory of pain. The brain is capable of blocking out the perception of pain (or cause pain.) These blocks, referred to as doors, are opened by stress, boredom, lack of activity, and even something as simple as paying attention to the pain. Relaxation, exercise, focusing on something other than the pain or even some other sort of pain (like acupuncture) can help close these “doors.” Virtual reality gives the brain something else it can focus on with almost all of the senses, forcing the brain to ignore the pain.  From there, the brain can be trained to continue to ignore the pain, and as a result, the pain that is felt lessens. You can watch a great video about it here

VR tricks the brain into feeling that it is reality, which can act as a block for whatever is happening to the body in the real world. The brain can control pain to a remarkable degree and a person’s psychology can affect whether aches and creaky joints stay or go. It can block – or produce – pain signals. The brain can learn to stop associating certain types of motion with pain, and artificial reality tricks the brain into thinking certain movements are safe. The training reduces the pain felt.  The source of the pain is still there, but it feels less miserable. Aromatherapy can be used with VR to trigger reactions based off of scents, but it also can help the brain close these gates. Read more about aromatherapy here and how to use it.

In a study, where 30 patients with chronic pain conditions of various sorts were offered a five-minute session in a VR using a head-mounted headset, 100% of patients in the study experienced some decrease in pain. 33% of people in the study reported complete pain relief. Their pain interfered less in their life even after they put down the VR headset, and the benefits persisted for at least 6 months. 

The immersive nature of virtual reality not only blocks out the pain of medical procedures procedures but makes the visit more pleasant. This leads to less anxiety, faster and easier medical procedures, and makes the patient more likely to stick to the treatment and testing plans. As a result, the exposure to VR improved health outcomes.

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What Else can VR Do?

VR is great way to explore the world from the comfort of your own home, without the strain of travel or pain.   It also can help people get appointments with medical personnel who might be out of their usual range. You can read more about telemedicine here. VR has unique benefits for telemedicine, as it has the potential to be more social than a video chat and might even be a way to perform cursory exams from a distance.

Some people use VR as a tool to build up good habits such as stress relief strategies or exercise. Some stress relief strategies include expressive writing, positive self-talk and meditation. despite not being medications, these can have huge inflammation reducing and pain-relieving effects. You won’t believe it until you try it. You can read more about positive self-talk techniques here, and about mindfulness here. All of these techniques can be used together: VR can be used to train mindfulness and other stress relief and coping mechanisms in a safe environment, including deep breathing. 

The full benefits of VR have not yet been studied and are potentially as infinite as the creativity of the designers and the desires of the users. Virtual reality does have a few flaws – losing track of reality can be dangerous and should be done in a safe space. The equipment, though more accessible than ever, is also still somewhat pricy. It also requires the time to use the technology, which is not always present. It can also cause vertigo and motion sickness due to the sensitivity of the motion controls and the disconnect between the movements of the body and what the eyes are seeing.

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Is VR Covered by Insurance?

VR was authorized by the FDA in 2020 and 2021 for chronic low back pain and fibromyalgia, and is under study for other forms of chronic pain, mental health, and physical therapy. It is growing both easier to implement in the home and the hospital, more affordable, and more effective. VR programs are becoming ever more varied – from video games to more “therapeutic” programs. It also should be noted that the VR games don’t even have to be made with therapy in mind – any game can potentially grant these benefits, a 2021 study shows. 

A VR headset with controllers can go for $300, which is much better than many other medical interventions. Unfortunately, insurance does not yet cover them. Still, success in PTSD and pain relief treatment means that there is hope that it will be counted as a ‘medical device’ in the near future, so stay tuned. 

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