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Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University are using virtual reality as a tool to help treat cancer patients as a supplement to medication and other pain-relieving measures.

About six million Canadians – 19 per cent of the population – report having a form of chronic pain, according to Statistics Canada.

“Issues with chronic pain haven’t been well dealt with by conventional approaches of medication and pharmacology,” said Dr. Bernie Garrett, the lead investigator and associate nursing professor at UBC. “VR isn’t going to be a cure-all for pain, but it’s another tool in the toolbox that we can use to help people control it.”

The researchers − Dr. Garrett, Dr. Tarnia Taberner of UBC Nursing and Dr. Diane Gromala, director of the Pain Studies Lab at Simon Fraser University – are studying whether immersion in a virtual reality environment for half an hour a day, six days a week, can distract patients enough so that their pain is relieved. Under the study, conducted in patients’ homes, participants record their pain levels before and after VR immersion.

Two types of VR environments best distract patients from their pain, said Dr. Garrett: meditative activities and cognitive-processing activities, such as solving puzzles.

“The reasons why [these environments] work is a little unclear, but we do know that pain is very much mediated by the brain and pain is neurologically moderated,” Dr. Garrett said. “It’s about engaging patients’ brains in another activity, which distracts them from focusing on the pain.”

So far, the results have been more positive than expected with some patients reporting their pain has virtually disappeared during the experience. The study, which began in 2017, currently has 40 patients and aims to double that number by the time the study ends in 2019.

However, the experience isn’t positive for everyone, Dr. Garrett said. Some patients experience motion sickness and others find the VR headsets frustrating and cumbersome.

The technology has come a long way since co-investigator Dr. Gromala started researching VR and chronic pain management in the early nineties. She also suffers from chronic pain herself, which motivates her research.

“I think because I am a patient myself, I understand the value of ‘First, do no harm.’ Really testing this to make sure it works is crucial,” Dr. Gromala said.

The cost and instability of VR technology in the early nineties limited research on VR’s application for chronic pain, Dr. Gromala explained. But things changed in 2014 when Facebook bought Oculus Rift for $2-billion.

“That was a big signal that this time maybe it would become accessible,” Dr. Gromala said.

Today, the amount of clinical research in VR research “is exponential,” Dr. Garrett said.

But with the increased accessibility of VR to the general public, Dr. Gromala cautions people against using off-the-shelf VR games to treat pain.

People suffering from chronic pain would find 85 per cent of currently available off-the-shelf VR games “inappropriate because there is a lot of stimulation,” Dr. Gromala said.

Features such as flashing lights and fast-moving objects that come toward the VR user can be distressing, or provoke a flight or fight response that isn’t helpful. The collaborative study at UBC uses VR environments that have been tested for more than a year to ensure the environment meet specific needs of chronic pain patients.

Now in the final stage of the study, the researchers are adding in an electroencephalography (EEG) component to better understand the neurological effects of VR. EEG can measure brainwaves, which are electrical impulses from the brain that can be recorded and are associated with specific types of brain activity.

“If we can show this is a useful adjunctive tool to use to control pain, then these headsets and applications could be available in the high street,” Dr. Garrett said, "or certainly in pain clinics and hospitals for people to use to help control their pain.”

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