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Virtual Reality Therapy Helps Decrease Cancer Pain, Study Finds

A person wearing a virtual reality headset.
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A new study has used virtual reality (VR) to help reduce cancer pain for hospitalized patients, potentially providing a non-invasive and non-pharmacologic approach to improve the quality of life for people with cancer.

The study is published in the journal Cancer.

Managing cancer pain

People with cancer can experience high levels of pain, caused not only by the disease itself but also by its treatment.

Strong painkillers such as opioids are often required to manage these high levels of pain. However, these come with their own risks and side effects.

New, non-invasive and non-pharmacologic approaches are needed to treat these types of pain and improve patients’ quality of life. But how can we achieve this? Enter the power of VR.

VR headsets are a common sight in the homes of many gamers, helping to create a more immersive gaming experience by placing users into new environments and exploring virtual worlds – and it is this immersive experience that is being harnessed by pain researchers.

VR approaches have been investigated for some conditions as a type of distraction therapy to draw attention away from pain. But not much has been achieved on this front for cancer pain, explains the study’s lead author, Dr. Hunter Groninger.

“Researchers have continued to look at VR to improve acute procedure-related pain and chronic low back pain,” said Groninger, a professor of medicine at Georgetown University and director of the Section of Palliative Care at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

“But there have been few developments in the space of cancer-related pain, something that is important to me as a palliative care researcher and certainly important to our patients living with cancer pain.”

VR therapy led to a sustained and significant decrease in cancer pain

In the new study, Groninger and colleagues enrolled 128 hospitalized cancer patients experiencing moderate to severe pain. They compared the effects of 10 minutes of immersive VR distraction therapy against 10 minutes of 2D guided imagery distraction therapy using a tablet device.

Patients scored their pain from 0–10 (10 being the most severe). This revealed that those in the VR group self-reported sustained and significant decreases in pain severity – dropping by 1.4 on average – compared to the 2D imagery, which led to an average decrease of 0.7.

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Surprisingly, some of the benefits of VR therapy also extended 24 hours after the treatment – pain scores the next day were sustained at 1.7 points lower than baseline for the VR group and 0.3 lower for the 2D imagery group.

“Why this sustained benefit happens is unclear right now,” explained Groninger. “Perhaps the immersive nature of VR experiences impacts pain pathways in the body somehow. Whatever the mechanism may be, this phenomenon is an important part of our ongoing and future research.”

“These differences are important to tease out how pain impacts our daily lived experience, particularly since pain remains so subjective,” said Groninger.

Further optimization is required before clinical use

Next, the researchers are interested in expanding on their findings by studying the effects of VR therapy “dosing” to determine if it works better if used when needed, or as part of a regular schedule.

“For example, we are interested to learn what might happen if we administer VR pain therapy every day, similar to how we administer a traditional pain medication,” Groninger explained.

However, it will take time before the therapy can be integrated into clinical practice.

“We need to learn more before knowing the future of VR in this setting,” Groninger said. “Who benefits from VR pain therapies the most? Do some VR experiences work better than others? What is the neural mechanism by which immersive VR can improve acute or chronic pain? Most of all, what do our patients want from VR, and how we can support them?”

Reference: Groninger H, Violanti D, Mete M. Virtual reality for pain management in hospitalized patients with cancer: A randomized controlled trial. Cancer. 2024. doi: 10.1002/cncr.35282

Dr. Hunter Groninger was speaking to Dr. Sarah Whelan, Science Writer for Technology Networks.

About the interviewee: Dr. Hunter Groninger is a professor of medicine at Georgetown University, director of the Section of Palliative Care at Medstar Washington Hospital Center and scientific director for palliative care at the MedStar Health Research Institute. He holds an undergraduate degree from Princeton University and earned his medical degree from the University of Virginia. His current research focuses on the delivery of palliative care in cardiovascular medicine and innovative symptom management strategies.