By Annette “Dr. Z” Zaharoff, M.D.
Those virtual reality devices have been all the rage the past couple of Christmas seasons are a wondrous piece of technology, using special goggles and your smart phone to allow you to immerse yourself in a world that seems all too real. Now, imagine using the same technology to train your body to manage pain.
I’m part of a new study with researchers from UT Health San Antonio that is examining whether we can do that very thing. The study is called “A real life application of virtual reality to manage chronic pain.”
The study requires each subject to download an app to their smart phone. This app is then customized to the individual’s chronic condition – elbow pain, low-back pain, knee pain, and so on.
The patient then uses VR goggles to access the app, which walks them through a series of exercises and images designed to help them modulate their perception of pain. For example, if you have elbow pain, it may hurt to try to pick up something like an empty coffee mug. But in the virtual reality world, you may be doing something like pushing mountains, or tossing gigantic boulders. That herculean feeling can help you re-train your neural system.
This has the potential to revolutionize pain management, providing a non-pharmacological option for treating pain.
When people have pain over a prolonged period of time, it changes their central nervous system, their neural system. The way your chemical and neuro transmitters in the central nervous system work makes pain the problem, separate from any physical manifestation there.
The way we tend to treat these chronic pain conditions today is with opioids, which has led to a growing addition crisis in our country. As noted in my column last month, more than 64,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s up 21 percent increase versus 2015. Prescription painkillers, fentanyl, heroin and other opioids were responsible for three out of four drug overdose fatalities.
What’s more, these drugs don’t offer any permanent or lasting relief. Just giving drugs to someone doesn’t change the neural system in a way that makes pain more bearable. Professor Simmonds believes using virtual reality to re-train the neural system will help people to manage pain without using pharmacological agents.
For the past few months, we have been gathering volunteers to take part in the study, which now is moving into the investigation phase. I am very interested in the outcomes because it fits in with my non-surgical approach to helping patients heal and get back to their best.
The eight volunteers in the study all have a type of chronic joint pain (such as knee, hip or elbow) that they have described as burning, aching or stabbing.
They take the VR system home and use it twice a day, utilizing the app designed by Professor Simmonds and a research team in California. The volunteers will track their use of the VR device and will be measured on various functionality predictors, such as their ability to go from sitting to standing, gait speed, and grip strength.
I’m also excited to see if there is enough progress to move to the second phase of the study, where we will then see if the VR therapy can help improve outcomes for patients receiving regenerative injection treatments, particularly Prolotherapy. As you may know, I am very involved in training doctors from around the world on the most effective utilization of Prolotherapy, injections of dextrose and lidocaine to help patients heal from musculoskeletal injuries and joint pain.
If we can train patients through this VR study to help improve the healing cascade that comes with Prolotherapy injections, then the possibilities for the future of pain management are very bright indeed.
We’ll keep you apprised of our progress.
Dr. Annette “Dr. Z” Zaharoff heads the Non-Surgical Center of Texas, focusing on non-surgical treatments to relieve pain and repair injuries. A former professional tennis player who competed on the WTA circuit, Dr. Zaharoff has been utilizing regenerative injection treatments including Stem Cell Therapy, PRP Injection Therapy and Prolotherapy for more than a decade. Learn more about her at www.drzmd.com. You can follow her on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/DrZaharoff.