It is a concept that has been around for a few years, but with the growth of the nation’s opioid addiction crisis, the use of virtual reality (VR) as a pain management tool is gaining more attention from the medical community – including the Centers for Disease Control.

An early study in this area was conducted at the University of Washington Harborview Burn Center in 2008. Combat veterans who had suffered burn injuries were divided into two groups. One group had their pain treated with morphine, while the other played a VR game known as “SnowWorld.” In the simulation, subjects were immersed in arctic surroundings as they traveled along an ice-filled mountain pass, using their VR headsets and a joystick to throw snowballs at penguins and snowmen – essentially, the opposite of fire and heat.

The results were remarkable. Patients who used the VR simulation during their burn treatments and therapy experienced a reduction of their pain by more than 54%, far greater than that of the morphine group. That study, published in the Journal of Trauma in 2011, laid the foundation for the mainstreaming of VR therapies now being employed at major medical centers today – including Cedars-Sinai in New York City and Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. Interestingly, although VR was initially seen as a form of entertainment intended to keep patients’ minds off of their discomfort during treatments, therapies and routine tests, the medical community’s primary interest lies in its potential as an alternative to addictive opioid pain medications.

Since medical science began exploring the possibilities of VR therapy, dozens of additional studies have confirmed its effectiveness in pain management over opioid-based medications, especially with chemotherapy patients, children, and those undergoing rehabilitative therapy following major injuries. More recent studies indicate that VR therapy can be a potent alternative for patients dealing with chronic pain – those most likely to become addicted to opioids.

One factor that has led to the wider acceptance of VR therapy is the costs associated with the technology, which has fallen dramatically over time, even as its capabilities undergo remarkable advances. VR headsets that cost $35,000 ten years ago can be had today for as little as $100. As the price of this technology continues to fall, insurers will be more willing to cover such costs – and the use of VR therapy for pain management across the board is likely to be embraced by more clinics and hospitals as they work to reduce the use of opioids given to patients.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.