For a long time, virtual reality (VR) has seemed to belong to the realm of science fiction. However, practical VR tools have existed for more than 30 years for video games, job training and engineering. It’s now easier than ever to get a hold of a VR headset, and this increase in accessibility has presented new opportunities for use in healthcare. In fact, virtual reality has been used to manage pain and anxiety symptoms in people with chronic illnesses like arthritis.

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality has its visual roots in “stereoscopic” images, produced since the 1860s. Stereoscopic images produce a different image to be seen by the left and the right eye, producing an illusion of depth. In the 20th century, this illusion of depth was applied to videos, initially for scientific purposes, and then increasingly in entertainment forms. In today’s world, VR is often associated with a headset that can bring a screen close to the user’s eyes in a safe way. Often, these headsets are accompanied by controllers to track a user’s hands and movements.

How does it work for arthritis treatment?

Rheumatology clinics, pain researchers, and others in the healthcare world have been testing out the use of VR in treatment. A recent study explored the use of virtual reality guided meditation and biofeedback modules in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Using scales to measure pain and anxiety before, during, and after using the modules, the study found a “significant reduction” in both pain and anxiety in patients.

Other applications of virtual reality include “virtual appointments” with members of your care team, VR exercises that can be tracked and viewed by physiotherapists, and rehabilitation activities. There has also been research into the role of distraction in pain management, specifically using virtual environments to create calming experiences. This was used in addition to existing or ongoing approaches to pain management and showed promising results.

What’s next?

It may not be time to buy your own consumer virtual reality headset just yet. There are currently no proven home therapy applications of VR that show ongoing reduction in pain symptoms. However, there are some clinics across Canada exploring this new form of therapy, so it may be on the horizon for your treatment plan. VR is not meant to replace your existing symptom management approaches, including staying active, eating well, protecting your joints and following the recommendations of your healthcare team.

While you wait for virtual reality to be more widespread, you can learn more about pain management in our Managing Chronic Pain online module and anxiety care in our Mental Health online module.

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