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Virtual Reality: A Nontraditional Approach to Combatting Opioid Addiction & Mental Illness

John Meier

Manager, Healthcare Business Consulting

Michael Capofari

Manager, Healthcare Business Consulting
  • Healthcare

Initially popularized through gaming, movies, interactive maps and other recreational activities, the usage and adoption of virtual reality (VR) has rapidly expanded. VR’s growth (see diagram below) can, in large part, be attributed to the development of standalone headsets, such as Rift and HTC Vive. Prior to the commercialization of this portable device, VR was only accessible to those with a specialized computer designed to operate a headset. This increased availability, previously out of reach to everyone but gamers, now conveniently provides a convincing multi-sensory, immersive and realistic environment. Over the past decade, there have also been significant technological advances related to the experience, graphics and overall performance that are key to making VR a real success. This immense improvement in the “reality” of the virtual experience has enabled VR to be an effective tool in various capacities, such as military training, educational settings and healthcare delivery.

Researchers, scientists and providers alike are particularly encouraged by VR’s potential for health benefits – specifically its ability to treat anxiety disorders and help manage chronic and acute pain. VR advocates are energized by the rapidly growing volume of medical research and scientific evidence to further support these claims. As a result of this growing scientific affirmation, VR has the potential to become play an integral role in improving mental health and combatting the opioid crisis.

As millions of Americans suffer from untreated mental illnesses, virtual reality offers a promising therapeutic solution for a range of anxiety disorders.

Mental health, a person’s emotional, psychological and social wellbeing, affects all aspects of everyday life. While vitally important to an individual’s health and happiness, 20% of Americans are currently living with a mental illness. Furthermore, 57% of those individuals are not receiving treatment today. This wide-ranging, and often untreated, healthcare condition has led to a mental health crisis in the United States.

Anxiety disorders, the most prevalent diagnosed mental illness, affect 42 million Americans. As traditional anxiety treatments can be relatively expensive, inaccessible and underutilized, healthcare providers have identified VR as a more accessible and cost-effective form of treatment for patients. The portability of VR hardware can also help overcome some of the delivery issues and stigmas associated with traditional mental healthcare, as treatment is not limited to a doctor’s office and can be applied at home. Research studies have shown VR to effectively treat many forms of anxiety, such as generalized anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and social anxiety.

The immersive qualities of VR make it particularly well-suited to treat anxiety disorders through exposure-based treatment. In the past, exposure therapies have fallen short because of their inability to create a multi-sensory, believable replication of a patient’s anxiety-inducing environment. However, with VR, healthcare providers can virtually place a patient into a specific, anxiety-provoking environment and begin to introduce stress- and anxiety-relieving exercises. These simulations can be relatively expensive and can help people conquer their fear of crowds, heights, small spaces and many other anxiety-inducing situations. Alternatively, VR-based treatment has shown to be an effective tool for practicing relaxation- or mindfulness-based approaches, as well as breathing exercises.

To combat the national opioid crisis, VR has emerged as an effective treatment for chronic pain and an alternative to highly addictive medication.

The misuse and addiction to opioids is a public health crisis that continues to devastate communities nationwide. Killing 130 people every day in the US, there’s a desperate need of new and innovative approaches to combat this epidemic. One critical component to solving this epidemic is addressing how pain is managed and ultimately reducing the dependency of these highly addictive medications.

Pain is a nearly impossible physical sensation to describe because it’s a complex and subjective experience impacted by sensory, cognitive and affective factors. Difficult to explain and even harder to manage, millions of Americans resort to extremely potent and highly addictive painkillers for relief. Effective, yet potentially lethal when abused, an estimated 11.4 million Americans are misusing opioids to relieve physical pain, leading to the highest cause of injury-related deaths in the US (more than car accidents and homicide).

VR offers a promising, effective and, most importantly, nonpharmacologic form of pain management. Because pain is driven by a trio of forces (sensory, cognitive and affective), multiple modalities are required to address it holistically. VR’s multi-sensory, deeply immersive experiences exert an array of emotional affective, emotion-based cognitive and attentional processes on the body’s intricate pain modulation system. This positive impact on the psychological state of an individual plays a crucial role in the body’s interpretation of pain and can provide prolonged relief. By better managing the often overlooked, non-sensory components of pain, VR can help reduce opioid dependency by providing one modality of nonpharmacologic pain management.

The widespread use of VR for healthcare purposes is not without its challenges; namely, the FDA designating specific VR applications as medical devices. Establishing this credibility would help overcome another hurdle to the broader adoption of VR – insurance coverage. Getting insurers to cover (or partially cover) VR-based treatments within their insurance packages would open many doors and opportunities for patients to receive more accessible mental health and pain management services. Along with the issue of coverage, the adoption of VR among patients poses further challenges, as some individuals are slow to adopt new technologies, have religious restrictions, or are prone to seizures and/or motion sickness. 

As we continue to search for ways to help millions of people who suffer from untreated mental illness, or opioid abuse/misuse, VR offers a promising future. Many challenging obstacles exist on the path to achieving widespread adoption of these solutions. However, the growing number of studies and clinical trials that demonstrate its efficacy and uncover its health benefits are driving demand. While it’s only one component of addressing anxiety disorders and pain management, VR has the potential to be instrumental in providing life-altering treatment moving forward.

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