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Virtual Reality for Chronic Pain

A New Option in Your Pain-Relief Arsenal

By Beth Jennings, PT, MPT 

 

The staff at FYZICAL- Forest Grove have been singing the praises of virtual reality (VR) and our new MotionVR system from Virtualis for balance problems, dizziness, and orthopedic conditions.  

Now, let’s talk about how VR can help you with your chronic pain.  

 

Movement is Important for Pain Reduction 

Moving your body keeps you flexible, strong, and able to perform activities like climbing stairs, playing pickleball with your friends, or dancing at your cousin’s wedding.  

Activity encourages blood flow to muscles, lubrication of joints, and calming of nerves.  

So why do we avoid movement? Because, sometimes, it hurts. 

Movement can be the medicine your body needs, so physical therapists (PTs) like us want you to move, particularly when pain becomes chronic.  

 

The Complexity of the Human Pain Experience

Pain is not as simple as a mechanical experience of a nerve detecting injury or danger and informing the brain.

  • Sam was playing volleyball when she dislocated her finger diving for a ball. She continued playing until her teammate pointed out her crooked finger. Sam reported not feeling the pain until she looked at it. Why didn't she feel pain immediately?

  • Frank misfired a nail gun, shooting a nail into his boot. Wailing in pain, he is taken to the emergency room only to discover that the nail never penetrated his foot. It had slid neatly between his toes and didn't even scratch his skin. Frank experienced pain, but how?

  • Stacey had shoulder surgery one year ago and is still experiencing pain. Her doctor says her last MRI showed the tissues have healed, and her PT says her strength and function are good, so why is she having pain?

Pain isn't as accurate as we would like to believe, and our brains can be tricked (for better or worse). VR is a type of brain distraction that we can use to help you move with less pain so you can gain the medicinal benefits of movement.

What Influences Your Perception of Pain?

Cognitive, psychological, emotional, and environmental factors can influence a person's pain experience.

  • Sam was distracted by the excitement of the game and was focused on making the next point.

  • Frank has seen others injured on the worksite. He watched his injury happen, and logic told him that it should hurt.

  • Stacey has been under a lot of stress after losing her job when the shoulder injury occurred two years ago.

Playing a game in a VR system like we have at FYZICAL - Forest Grove allows the focus to be on the VR activity and not your pain. Yes, it sounds sneaky, but we learned that brains can only process a finite number of distractions. Focusing on the VR activity can help your body feel less pain

Studies Show VR Reduces Pain 

A 2019 systematic review of the literature on virtual reality with burn patients, a population who experiences much pain with dressing changes and physical therapy sessions. Compared to burn patients who used pain medication only, those who used virtual reality plus pain medication had less pain intensity, unpleasantness, and time spent thinking about pain, and increased fun. 

And in a 2016 study on adults, patients reported a 33% decrease in pain after using a specific VR program for five minutes.  

 

MotionVR Brings the Fun to Physical Therapy 

Have fun during your physical therapy session? Yes, right here at FYZICAL – Forest Grove. And you will be working on improving your chronic pain, too.  

 

Do you know someone with chronic pain who is thinking about starting physical therapy? Share this article through one of the links at the top of this post.  

 

Beth Jennings, PT, MPT is a freelance writer and a physical therapist. 

 

Disclaimer This blog is provided for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. 

 

References: 

Luo H, Cao C, Zhong J, Chen J, Cen Y. Adjunctive virtual reality for procedural pain management of burn patients during dressing change or physical therapy: A systematic review and meta‐analysis of randomized controlled trials. Wound Repair & Regeneration. 2019;27(1):90-101. doi:10.1111/wrr.1 

Jones T, Moore T, Choo J. The Impact of Virtual Reality on Chronic Pain. PLoS One. 2016;11(12):e0167523. Published 2016 Dec 20. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0167523

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