Reviewing Virtual Reality as FDA Approves VR for Back Pain Therapy

headsets and controllers use cognitive behavioral therapy regimen to reduce back pain

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The Food and Drug Administration approved a virtual reality program for back pain. Users wear a headset and use a controller to undergo a cognitive behavioral therapy regimen. Virtual reality manipulates the body’s sense of environment.

Man using virtual reality headset in living room
Photo By SFIO CRACHO / Shutterstock

A virtual reality (VR) system with software that can help users reduce back pain has been authorized for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA approved the system after a clinical trial showed that a majority of patients who utilized the VR hardware and software experienced reduced physical back pain compared with those who didn’t. The program uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and breathing exercises to help patients lessen their pain without the use of prescription medicine.

Virtual reality can manipulate our bodies’ sense of environment quite convincingly. In her video series How Digital Technology Shapes Us, Dr. Indre Viskontas, Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco, explained how VR relates to our nervous systems.

It’s a Qualia Thing

“Our experience of the world, how we sense our surroundings and translate that into perception, is a fundamental feature of our nervous system, and therefore of ourselves,” Dr. Viskontas said. “Somewhere along the way, we evolved the ability to be subjectively aware of what we are feeling—what philosophers call qualia. We not only know that a stop sign is red, the way a computer might assign it a label; we also experience its redness.”

Dr. Viskontas noted that our experience of everything is colored by our neural wiring, our previous experience, and our current internal state. She gave the example that when someone is very hungry, they might love a bowl of fresh carrots. However, if the same person has just eaten something sweet, carrots may taste bitter. What does that have to do with VR?

“If our experience of the current situation depends on our past and our current state, then spending a lot of time in a virtual environment will change how we experience things in the future,” she said. “Our brains, remember, are biological organs, with adaptability being arguably their biggest strength.

“Experience engenders change not only in how our brains are activated, but even in their structural anatomy, if the experience is powerful enough or if it lasts for a long time.”

Phantom Pain

One significant challenge to medicine and physical therapy is that of the “phantom limb.” When someone loses a limb, they often feel pain in a part of their body that is no longer there. Treating pain for a body part that is no longer a part of the patient’s body seemed impossible until another kind of simulated reality proved fruitful.

“After further surgeries severing nerve endings and pharmaceutical treatments of phantom limb pain proved ineffective, UC San Diego neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran devised a clever tool to retrain the brain into relaxing the limb that’s no longer there,” Dr. Viskontas said. “He and his students built a box that allows the patient to ‘see’ their phantom limb by using their intact limb reflected by a mirror.

“Then the patient moves her intact limb and watches the reflection, imagining that the moving limb is actually the missing one.”

Remarkably enough, Ramachandran’s mirror treatment proved to be very effective. It doesn’t work for all amputees with phantom pain, but the better they are at internalizing the reflection, the more effective the pain relief will be.

By immersing us more fully in a virtual world, VR can affect our minds in many ways. Reducing back pain is a surprising one, but evident in the recent FDA ruling.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily