Pain Management with Virtual Reality

Pain management virtual reality

Pain Management with Virtual Reality

The therapeutic applications of virtual reality go beyond the field of psychology and mental health: the treatment and management of pain – located in physiological health – is proving extensive scientific evidence. Several studies have investigated how this technology can help both children and adults in acute pain and chronic pain. Pain distraction therapies are analyzed as an alternative or complementary therapy to pharmacological treatments (mostly opiates) that often have side effects and addiction.

Although they are called pain distraction therapies, they go far beyond what we can think. Jeffrey I. Gold (1), director of the Children’s Hospital Pain Control Clinic in Los Angeles notes: “It is different from reading a book or playing with a toy. It is not just a distraction, it is a multisensory experience that attracts a person’s attention to a much deeper level. It’s like an endogenous narcotic that provides a physiological and chemical burst that makes you feel good. ”

Until now, virtual reality has been used more widely and successfully to help children and adults withstand acute pain in medical settings, for example in simple medical interventions (such as venous punctures), as well as the most invasive ones, such as care of wounds, patients with major burns or chemotherapy. In all these cases, patients reported a reduction in pain perception, anxiety and general distress during the procedures (1) (2).

In the case of chronic pain, new studies are emerging (3) that show that virtual reality can reduce pain and improve the effectiveness of other techniques such as physiotherapy, hypnosis or cognitive behavioral therapy to relieve those affected. It is estimated that one in six Spaniards (17%) suffers from chronic pain. Often patients with chronic pain are afraid to move, which can actually make their problem worse. Some virtual reality programs cause patients to gently exercise injured or affected body parts and thus expand their range of mobility while blocking the brain’s ability to register pain.

In addition, virtual reality can also help in the management of pain using it as a compliment on a cognitive level, teaching coping and mindfulness skills that patients can use later to help reduce chronic pain. “Learning changes the brain and gives patients something that continues to work when the glasses are removed. When patients realize that their pain is not inevitable, they are more receptive to physical therapy exercises and are more likely to move on their own. “Dr. Hoffman explains.

But how does the analgesic effect of virtual reality work? The most accepted explanation is in the Pain Gate Theory (“Gate control”). This theory explains that pain messages travel through the nervous system and encounter “doors” in the spinal cord. Non-painful stimuli close these “doors” to the painful stimulus, preventing the signal from reaching the brain and feeling pain.

Virtual reality therapy is a relatively new route for acute pain and chronic pain, but the first results show that it can be an effective treatment, both for its analgesic effect and as a complementary therapy. In a society where the excessive use of opioid medications has caused addiction and serious side effects (in addition to high costs), it is a priority to find new alternatives to deal with pain. In addition to showing ample evidence, virtual reality continues to advance at a technological level and reduce its costs to make it more accessible.


  1. Gold, J. I., Kant, A. J., Kim, S. H., y Rizzo, A. S. (2005). Virtual anesthesia: The use of virtual reality for pain distraction during acute medical interventions. Seminars in Anesthesia, Perioperative Medicine and Pain, 24(4), 203-210.
  2. Hunter G. Hoffman, David R. Patterson, Gretchen J. Carrougher, M.N., and S. R. S. (2001). Effectiveness of Virtual Reality-Based Pain Control With Multiple Treatments. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 17, 229–235.
  3. Jones, T., Moore, T., y Choo, J. (2016). The Impact of Virtual Reality on Chronic Pain. PLoS ONE, 11(12), 1-10.