Cedars-Sinai physicians using VR to treat chronic pain

A Cedars-Sinai physician in Los Angeles is running a virtual reality initiative and is discovering how the new technology can be useful to those dealing with chronic pain, The New York Times reported April 26.

Virtual reality is becoming a tool to treat chronic pain, an issue that affects around 50 million Americans. In November 2021, the FDA gave approval for one VR product to be marketed as a treatment for chronic pain.  

Brennan Spiegel, MD, director of Health Services Research for Cedars-Sinai is running one of the largest research programs studying the uses of virtual reality in health therapy. The initiative was started in 2015 after receiving a $1 million grant. 

"All of its revolutionary potential tumbles out of its ability to compel a person’s brain and body to react to a different reality," he told the NYTimes

He has a lab set up alongside Omer Liran, MD, a self-taught programmer in which the two create virtual environments for patients. They also monitor the patients' biometric data, including pupil dilation, heart rate and cognitive load. 

Discussing a patient who had tried VR treatment for her chronic gastrointestinal pain successfully, Dr. Spiegel said, "What we saw today with [her] was like a 'cyberdelic,' as if she took psilocybin. She had explosive insights into how to modify her own life."

"I almost don’t even care what the mechanism is or how it’s working," he said. He said he cares more about whether it is working clinically and whether patients are alleviated from pain and learn how to better manage it. 

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