Virtual Reality as Treatment for Pain

Bruce Burk

Tampa, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – With the opioid crisis in full swing, doctors are turning to alternative methods to treat pain in workers’ compensation patients. While some say medical marijuana is being substituted as an alternative to drugs like oxycontin and hydrocodone, a new unique form of treatment may also be able to help injured workers.

Virtual Reality is being used to treat patients with chronic pain and studies are showing it can have a significant effect on their symptoms. A new study published in PLOS|ONE, the Public Library of Science shows that virtual reality was used effectively with hospitalized patients.

The variable participants in the study were given virtual reality goggles and told to use them three times per day for around 10 minutes per session. The goggles would display several relaxing scenes including guided meditation. This took place over a three-day period.

The non-variable group was given a similar experience only they were watching television instead of using VR. Nurses came into the room periodically and asked the patients to rate their pain on a scale of 1-10.

The results of the study found that the patients that were using the VR headsets rated their pain on average 1.7 points lower than the ones who did not have the headsets. This results are in line with other studies that have shown significant decreases in reported pain by patients who use VR therapy.
Legal Ramifications

Prescribing virtual reality therapy can present some interesting issues in a workers’ compensation case. If the doctor’s office has headsets in their office, then they only need to allow the patients to have access to them. However, if the doctor wants the VR therapy to take place at home, it could put employer/carriers in the position to have to pay for a VR headset for the claimant.

Some headsets are merely cases for a smartphone which turn the smartphone’s screen into VR with special lenses. However, others are stand-alone devices such as the oculus rift which is owned by Facebook.

Yet VR is arguably much less intrusive than other treatments such as injections, physical therapy, or surgery. It will likely be used in combination with other therapy to produce results.

VR therapy is likely something that could benefit patients that have pain coupled with a psychological or psychiatric injury. Having this form of therapy may help treat patients suffering from depression, anxiety or PTSD.

However, a benefit like this could become litigated because it is the kind of benefit that could be prescribed without a set number of sessions through the end of the claimant’s lifetime. The benefit in theory should not cost that much, as it only should take one device and an internet connection to use the benefit.
I believe we will continue to see alternative pain management techniques used as doctors shift away from opioids. Other alternative pain therapy could include things like float therapy, meditation, yoga, acupuncture, music therapy, and massages.

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