Study: Virtual reality therapy reduces long-term pain intensity, compared to sham app

A virtual reality therapy program reduces pain intensity up to six months later, compared to a sham application, according to a study published in JMIR.

The study was sponsored by AppliedVR and used its RelieVRx system, formerly known as EaseVRx, to evaluate its long-term effectiveness for people with chronic low back pain (CLBP). It followed previous research that analyzed the eight-week immersive program, compared to a 2D mock experience immediately after treatment.

The researchers sent surveys to 188 participants before treatment, after treatment, and after one, two, three and six months. They found that the mean percentage change in pain intensity six months after treatment was -31.3% in the VR group, compared to -15.9% in the sham group. More than half of the VR group reached the threshold of moderate clinical significance, while 25% of the sham group reached this level.

Meanwhile, 38% of the RelieVRx cohort achieved substantial clinical significance, while only 13.2% of the mock group did.

The study also found that the VR intervention improved pain-related interference with activity, stress, and sleep. Although the differences between the two groups for physical function and sleep disturbance were statistically significant, they were not clinically significant.

“Combined, the results support the 6-month analgesic efficacy of an 8-week fully automated home virtual reality program for CLBP,” the study authors wrote.

“Recent meta-analyses of VR have noted a lack of high-quality efficacy studies for chronic pain, except those involving physical rehabilitation programs. To our knowledge, our efficacy investigations extent of VR are the first involving pain management at home without physical rehabilitation.”

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT

The researchers noted some study limitations, including low levels of depressive symptoms among participants and reliance on self-reported outcomes. Although the study was double-blinded, most participants guessed which group they belonged to, suggesting that blinding may not have worked.

The sample also included mostly white college-educated female participants, so it may not apply to people of other backgrounds. However, the researchers examined whether socioeconomic status (SES) affected participants’ engagement.

“Although our examination of the impact of SES on user engagement is preliminary and may be subject to selection bias, we found equivalent engagement between lower and higher SES individuals with EaseVRx. These data potentially refute the perception that high-tech digital treatment, such as VR, may be impractical in people with low SES and suggests that digital therapies, such as EaseVRx, represent an opportunity to reach CLBP patients in historically underserved areas” , writes the author.

THE GREAT TREND

AppliedVR received De Novo clearance from the FDA in November to market its VR system to treat CLBP. The company announced $36 million in Series B funding in November, after raising $29 million in Series A earlier in 2021.

Other companies are focusing on using virtual reality to manage chronic pain. In July, XRHealth launched a program that aims to address pain management. Late last year, Japanese medical device maker Jolly Good announced plans to study the use of virtual reality for chronic pain. It also offers virtual reality courses for medical training.

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