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Virtual reality as pain management for workplace injuries

Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Samsung, Travelers Insurance, Bayer and AppliedVR have teamed up in a new 16-month study to evaluate virtual reality (VR) for pain reduction and therapeutic purposes. The belief is that VR can potentially be a drug-free tool for pain management. Similar VR studies are happening in Canada. Earlier this year, researchers from Simon Fraser University’s Pain Studies Lab recruited people with and without arthritis to play their VR game. Their goal is to understand how VR can be used as a tool for enhancing physical activity, which can help reduce pain.

Image of a man wearing virtual reality VR glasses


According to Dr. Brennan Spiegel, director of health services research at Cedars-Sinai, the study will use technology from Samsung, Bayer and AppliedVR as a supplement to manage pain in patients with acute orthopaedic injuries of the lower back and extremities. The study will be funded by Travelers and Samsung. Dr. Spiegel added: “We need to find ways to stem the tide without relying entirely on medicines. Health technology, like virtual reality, has tremendous potential to improve outcomes while saving costs, which is why we’re so excited about this collaboration among academia and industry.”

Results from another study show that the “use of VR in hospitalized patients significantly reduces pain versus a control distraction condition.” In that particular study, Cedar-Sinai researchers provided patients with Samsung Gear Oculus VR headsets that featured 3D nature videos and compared pain scores for those patients to those who simply watched nature videos on a bedside TV. Similarly, Samsung completed a randomized control trial that shows you can decrease pain with VR by 52 percent.

The new study aims to recruit between 90 and 140 participants. Participants will receive a “digital pain-reduction kit” that includes a Samsung Gear VR headset that connects a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) device from Bayer and a Samsung GearFit2 wearable fitness tracker. The following will be tracked: day-to-day functional status, work productivity, and their use of pain medications. The study aims to:

  • improve outcomes for injured workers
  • look at the correlation between pain management and the economic environment associated with worker’s compensation
  • explore the effectiveness of VR in managing pain associated with lower back and extremity orthopaedic injuries

Dr. Melissa Burke, national pharmacy director at Travelers, concluded: “Workplace injuries that lead to chronic pain can cause ongoing issues, as an injured employee may mask pain with opioids or other drugs. Identifying new, non-pharmacologic alternatives for pain management can help an injured employee avoid chronic pain, lower the chances that they will develop a dangerous opioid addiction and reduce medical costs.”

Samsung Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Rhew told MobiHealthNews: “I think one of the most remarkable things about virtual reality is we have always thought of it as a great entertainment and distraction tool. What we haven’t really thought of it as is a therapeutic tool. And specifically being used to treat conditions such as pain, stress, anxiety, blindness, post-traumatic stress disorder, stroke, spinal cord injury. There’s a lot of research now which is being brought to life and enabled by technologies from Samsung.”