I was packing up at the end of a family vacation in Florida when my back went into an excruciating spasm unrelieved by a fistful of pain medication. As my twin sons, then 8 years old, wheeled me through the airport, one of them suggested, "Mom, if you think about something else, it won't hurt so much."
At the time, I failed to appreciate the wisdom of his advice. Now, four decades later, a sophisticated distraction technique is being used to help patients of all ages cope with pain, both acute and chronic. The method, called Virtual Reality Therapy, goes beyond simple distraction, as might result from watching television. Rather, it totally immerses the patient in an entertaining, relaxing, interactive environment that so occupies the brain, it has no room to process pain sensations at the same time.
"It's not just a distraction — it's like an endogenous narcotic providing a physiological and chemical burst that causes you to feel good," said Jeffrey I. Gold, director of the pediatric pain management clinic at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. "It's different from reading a book or playing with a toy. It's a multisensory experience that engages a person's attention on a much deeper level."
Virtual Reality Therapy is the new kid on the block for pain management, now gradually growing in use as the opioid epidemic continues to soar and the price of the needed equipment has plummeted. VR, as it is called, has been most widely and successfully used so far to help children and adults weather acute pain, as can accompany an IV insertion or debridement of burns. But it can also enhance the effectiveness of established techniques like physical therapy, hypnosis and cognitive behavioral therapy to treat debilitating chronic pain.