By Kate Hunger
The use of virtual reality in medical research may seem like a fairly recent innovation, but Physical Therapy Professor Maureen Simmonds has been investigating its usefulness in her pain research for more than a decade.
"It's basically been a tool in my research equipment box, sort of like if you have a hammer or a saw," she said. "It's a means of changing factors within the environment and examining the impact of how you can better manage pain, mind, and movement."
That's not to say virtual reality hasn't changed since 2002 when Simmonds began to study its impact on pain. In those days the technology was expensive and, in her words, "clunky", with more limited applications. Today's technology is more readily available, portable and less costly.
Simmonds described her research program in pain, mind, and movement as a varies range of projects involving students researchers. Some projects involve "using computer programs and different interfaces that are designed to enhance analgesia" in patients with pain, she said, noting that her team has seen evidence of efficacy.
Other research projects include reducing pain by changing what the brain learns and studying the effect of virtual reality on different types of pain.
Having a nonpharmacological option for pain relief is an especially important area of study given the current opioid crisis, Simmonds said.
"Having something that patients can ultimately use themselves easily is very appropriate," Simmonds said. "What you are trying to do is develop computer games that people like to play and by doing so it then has this beneficial secondary effect that it reduces their pain and takes their mind of their suffering. It can become part of a patient's toolbox to manage their condition."
Some in the health care profession continue to misunderstand the suffering caused by pain that is not well managed and do not realize that "chronic pain is a condition in and of itself," Simmonds said.
"VR is not a panacea; it's a tool," she said. "Sometimes you need something to get you over a hump. With chronic pain it is persistent problem that you manage rather than cure."