Study: VR and Regular Exercise Can Help Reduce Chronic Pain

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Chronic pain affects an estimated 21% of the U.S. adult population. Among those suffering from chronic pain, approximately 8% experience high-impact chronic pain, which is to say pain that dramatically disrupts normal life. Is a combination of virtual reality (VR) and regular exercise the key to relief? It could be, at least for some patients.

An Australian study published early this year offers evidence that combining VR with regular exercise can “ease chronic pain.” Researchers believe that VR technologies can make exercise more enjoyable, thereby encouraging people to exercise longer. They also say that VR distracts people from their pain. As a result, they feel better while exercising more.

The Study’s Particulars

The study in question was conducted by researchers at the University of South Australia. Researchers utilized a stationary bike equipped with a head-mounted VR display that subjects wore as they exercised. VR software allowed researchers to remotely control bike functions during sessions. They could also measure how hard patients worked on the bike.

Participants were expected to ride the bike for up to 30 minutes procession. However, they were also allowed to end their sessions early if they chose to do so. Here is what the researchers learned:

  • Exercise enjoyment increases by 20% when enhanced by VR.
  • People exercising with VR tend to exercise 15% longer.
  • VR technology distracts chronic pain patients from their conditions.

When all was said and done, researchers reported that combining exercise with virtual reality improves the benefits of exercise all the way around. Bringing VR into the mix addresses one of the barriers that keep people from regular exercise: boredom.

VR and Pain Perception

Although the idea of combining exercise with VR might seem revolutionary, it actually makes perfect sense. Consider the patient who visits a clinic like Lone Star Pain Medicine (pain management clinic) in hopes that an alternative therapy will provide much needed relief. According to Lone Star doctors, patient perception matters a great deal.

People who expect to experience considerable pain often do. Those who expect to find pain relief are more likely to experience it. Furthermore, chronic pain patients who dwell on their pain often feel worse. So when we put all these factors together, distracting from pain should help.

In addition, many forms of chronic pain are exacerbated by inactivity. A lack of activity leads to muscle weakness. Weak muscles cannot support the body properly, thereby making a pain patient’s experience even worse. This is why doctors often recommend that chronic pain patients stay active.

Encouraging chronic pain patients to exercise regularly can make a significant difference. If a clinician can combine regular exercise with something that distracts from pain, he could have a winning therapy. That is exactly what the Australian researchers have demonstrated with their study.

Painkillers Aren’t the Only Way

As someone who lives with a chronic condition, this sort of research gets me excited. I have first-hand experience with the pharmacological approach to medicine. The truth is that prescription medications aren’t always the best way to treat chronic illness. Likewise, painkillers are not the only way to treat chronic pain.

I’m a firm believer that western medicine needs to rely less on prescription medications and more on non-pharmacological therapies. When appropriate, chronic pain patients should be encouraged to stay active. They should be encouraged to exercise regularly.

If VR can promote regular exercise and simultaneously distract from chronic pain, I am all for it. I would rather ride a stationary bike in a virtual world than take prescription medications for the rest of my life. I suspect that I am not alone here.

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