Virtual reality may not have lived up to the consumer hype once vested upon it, but a study has provided further evidence that it may be an effective non-pharmacological option to help ease pain in hospital patients.

In a trial of 120 people at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, US, 61 patients with a pain score of more than three out of ten viewed short virtual reality experiences.

The library included 21 virtual reality experiences, ranging from guided relaxation to simulated flight. Patients spent three ten-minute sessions watching them on a Samsung Gear VR headset during a 48 hour period.

Meanwhile 59 people in the control group instead watched a health and wellness channel.

On average, self-reported pain scores fell by 1.72 points for those using virtual reality – also known as VR – compared to 0.46 points for those without.

The researchers found that patients experiencing a greater severity of pain (more than seven out of ten) noticed a greater reduction in pain when using virtual reality.

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The virtual reality group noted a reduction of 3.04 on average, while the control a reduction of 0.93.

Lead researcher Dr Brennan Spiegel, professor of medicine and public health at Cedars-Sinai Health System and the University of California, Los Angeles, said:

“Evidence reveals that virtual reality therapy can tamp down pain signals through a variety of mechanisms. In this study, the largest of its kind to date, hospitalised patients with pain were randomised between VR or a relaxation program on TV. The VR outperformed the control condition and demonstrated benefits over several days of use.”

Startups already providing virtual reality pain relief

Although the study does not make it clear whether different forms of VR treatment are more effective, it indicates there are likely overall benefits of using virtual reality for reducing pain. The study is the latest in a line of research into the benefits of virtual reality as a non-pharmacological option for providing pain relief.

Several startups have popped up in recent years to provide virtual reality experiences to manage pain, including Israeli firm VRHealth.

“Our brain is like a CPU – 75% of that CPU goes to visuals and sound,” said Eran Orr, VRHealth’s founder, previously told Verdict Medical Devices. “When we overload our CPU with an immersive technology like VR, things like pain can get downgraded in the priority list. That’s why it’s amazing for pain management or pain distraction.”

The findings were published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Read more: Gauging the long-term impacts of augmented and virtual reality