"If I don't have nerve pain, I might have joint pain. If I'm not having
joint pain, I might have headaches," Greene said.
The unrelenting pain is a symptom of lupus, an autoimmune disease in
which a patient's immune system attacks the body. Greene has tried
acupuncture, massage and opioids, but realized she was allergic to the
addictive pain medicine.
The newest therapy that excites her: virtual reality. Greene
participated in a test through the company "appliedVR" to see if and how
virtual reality could help patients. Greene's virtual experience helped
her to relax and trained her to breathe in a specific way. She saw a
tree, crystals, water and her breath as she was guided to inhale and
"It worked. It works for me," Greene said. "It's the quality of life, it
is the range of motion, it is like, forget about quality of life, it is
VR in hospitals and clinics
Brennan Spiegel is a gastroenterologist who has used VR for his
patients. He said abdominal pain and gastrointestinal discomfort, in
some cases, are related to a patient's mental state.
"Something like virtual reality actually can intercede in the brain-gut
axis and sort of rewire the neurocircuitry in a way that helps to reduce
abdominal pain," said Spiegel, who is also director of Health Services
Research at Cedars-Sinai and heads its virtual reality program.
More than 2,500 patients have been treated with virtual reality at
Cedars-Sinai, a hospital with the largest documented therapeutic VR
program in the world, according to Spiegel.
"Virtual reality can reduce pain, can reduce blood pressure, can improve
quality of life, reduce anxiety and now, we're looking to see can it do
really important things like reduce the need for opioids."
Spiegel said more than 100 hospitals across the United States are using
VR as a form of therapy for patients to help manage symptoms such as
pain and anxiety. He said an increasing number of countries worldwide
are taking an interest, and doctors are starting to develop
international guidelines on how to apply and validate the technology in
Spiegel is now taking virtual reality outside the hospital to partner
clinics such as Attune Health in Los Angeles, where many of the patients
suffer from autoimmune or inflammatory diseases that cause symptoms such
as joint pain.
A rheumatologist and founder of Attune Health, Swamy Venuturupalli is
conducting a study on how VR can reduce the pain levels of patients in
his clinic. Virtual experiences include swimming with dolphins and
meditation exercises before a campfire. Venuturupalli said VR is not
just a distraction for patients experiencing pain; it can also train
them in deep breathing exercises and biofeedback.
"It allows you to connect with that part of your brain that you're
normally not in contact with — the part of the brain that controls
respiration, the part of the brain that controls your heart rate and the
emotional part of your brain," Venuturupalli said.
Doctors are also looking into the potential side effects of VR, such as
whether it could be addictive.
"It's probably unlikely and, in fact, we have not seen abuse amongst our
patients who are using it for therapeutic purposes rather than for
gaming or entertainment," Spiegel said.
The most common side effect for some patients, according to Spiegel, is
"simulator sickness," the feeling of dizziness and nausea when the
patient is wearing a VR headset. He said less than 10 percent of
patients experience this, but the symptoms quickly disappear when the
headset comes off.
VR pharmacy and clinics
The company appliedVR uses immersive technology to help people manage
pain and anxiety. It also is developing content and working with people
in entertainment and academia to find VR experiences appropriate for
patients. The vision is to have a VR pharmacy.
"You need a wide variety of content because you have a wide variety of
people in health care. From infancy to geriatrics and with every
personality type," said Josh Sackman, president and co-founder of
Swimming with dolphins may relax one patient, yet terrify another.
Greene said watching a fashion show in virtual reality helps her escape
medical world's reaction to using VR in the clinical setting has changed
in the past three years, said Sackman. In 2015, he experienced
skepticism among doctors who wondered why television or a tablet
couldn’t be used to distract patients. Sackman said that unlike a
screen, VR blocks out the sights and sounds of a hospital or clinic as
soon as the patient puts on the VR headset.
"In a matter of moments, you see a patient who is in agony, in terrible
pain, stressed, having panic and all of a sudden, their body relaxes, a
smile comes on their face and you see a physical transformation,"
Spiegel would like to create outpatient VR clinics. He said the aim is
not to have patients stay in VR forever.
"The idea is to learn while you're in virtual reality, that you do have
governance over your body, that the mind matters and that you can learn
these skills that are then reproduceable and could be called upon when
you need them in the real world," Spiegel said.