Publish Date: 18.01.18

Virtual reality (VR) technology is increasingly finding its way into hospitals and care homes as ground-breaking research and trials show huge benefits to patients.

Complex healthcare issues such as chronic pain, dementia and Alzheimer’s are being treated with this immersive tech experience in order to distract or stimulate the brain, helping sufferers escape their pain or allowing access to experiences otherwise out with their limitations. Hospices of Hope have been employing this technology, heralded as a supplement to traditional medicine, and seeing the positive impacts on patients first-hand, giving an alternative to medication as the first or only option available.

Virtual reality, which is mostly associated with the gaming or entertainment fields, is increasingly being used in the healthcare setting as a non-invasive, forward-thinking form of treatment. With the use of a headset complete with audio, users are immersed into a 360 degree world – from swimming with dolphins to museum tours and interactive games. The virtual reality experience takes so much focus from the brain that what’s going on outside the VR environment becomes much less noticeable, fading into the background. The experience is fully immersive, almost hijacking the brain, taking patients out of their pain and out of their immediate surroundings and the associated stress that comes with being in hospital or in care.

Leading Hospitals Push Research into Virtual Reality for Pain Management

Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles is another one of a few hospitals worldwide that have been trailing this ground-breaking new treatment to great effect. Brennan Spiegel, a Cedars-Sinai researcher, says a virtual-reality experience can reduce pain by 24% or more, according to clinical trials he has conducted in the past two years. Patients with different types of pain, from cancer patients, chronic back or abdominal pain, burn pain and psychological trauma, have all experienced benefits from using the technology. In a climate of opioid and pain relief overuse and addiction, particularly in complex pain cases where patients have no cure and are simply managing their pain, VR offers a safe alternative or complementary treatment. In some research trials, promisingly, VR treatment has outperformed opioids in pain management studies.

Chronic pain can be a complex issue and be due to a combination of physical, emotional and social factors for patients, not just about the physical pain experienced. This is where VR can be powerful as a hugely relaxing experience, distracting from the physical body and negative pain sensations, replacing with positive, all-encompassing experiences instead. Patients have been seen to be checked out of the hospital sooner as well as talking of lasting effects after a single session, long after the headset is taken off. Though it hasn’t worked for everyone during trials, when it does work, VR can have an immediate and effective pain relief response in patients where other interventions have failed.

Virtual Reality and Alzheimer’s

The technology has also been employed in care homes on elderly patients and is showing promising results, particularly when it comes to treating people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Virtual reality can take Alzheimer sufferers to familiar places from their past, helping to unlock memories and make connections back to more positive times in their lives, acting as a memory-aid and mood- booster. Again the treatment is hugely relaxing for patients, and for those who are effectively housebound, it brings experiences to them via the virtual world that are otherwise out of reach in reality. It has shown positive signs towards stress relief and alleviating depression that comes with the mental limitations these conditions impose as well as physical limitations faced by many with decreased mobility in old age. There are also additional benefits, with carers and patients experiencing the treatment together, helping to enhance communication between them and providing bonding experiences, fostering more positive relationships in the care home setting.

Virtual reality is helping to improve the quality of life of many managing prolonged conditions and who are living in limited surroundings in hospitals or care homes. It is an exciting technology that continues to be developed, offering experiences that are more and more lifelike, with many calling for more hospitals and care homes to create VR libraries that are available to patients who find this non-invasive treatment extremely effective for pain-management, stress-relief or mood-boosting effects.

Find out more about our work.