How Virtual Reality Can Treat Chronic Pain

A reduction roughly equivalent to a dose of morphine.
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A woman wears a virtual-reality headset.

A woman wears a virtual-reality headset.

If you suffer from chronic pain, you've probably wished you could enter an alternate universe. Now, thanks to virtual-reality technology, you can, at least temporarily—and the result is an enormous reduction in physical suffering. That's the finding of a study published in the online journal PLoS One that featured 30 participants with various medical conditions causing chronic pain, most involving the spine or hips. Using an Oculus Rift headset, all spent five minutes exploring a 360-degree fantasy landscape with "trees, hills, snow scenes, caves, flames and otters." On average, their pain level dropped by 60 percent while in this virtual world. When they returned to the real world, it was still down by 33 percent—a reduction roughly equivalent to a dose of morphine. While it's not clear how long this effect lasts, the team argues a combination of pleasant distraction and, perhaps, the release of endorphins makes virtual reality a promising, drug-free way to alleviate pain that just won't quit.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.

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