Can VR Tackle The Opioid Epidemic?by@gabrielmosspdx
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Can VR Tackle The Opioid Epidemic?

by Gabriel MossFebruary 27th, 2018
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Virtual reality does this magical thing <a href=";t=166s" target="_blank">where it whisks people away and convinces them that they’re doing something else</a>. When the HMD completely covers the wearer’s head and redirects their senses, one can’t blame the body for convincing the brain, “I am here.”
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“A year ago, I observed — firsthand — seasoned clinical professionals absolutely terrified in a conference room at Providence, terrified at the prospect of taking just a single step forward. So why? Why would that be? Was there something dangerous, some hot coals in front of them? No, not at all.

They were enjoying a VR experience that had effectively taken over their brain and convinced them that if they took that one step, they would fall 30 stories off a very tall building. And many of them literally locked up, they could not take that one step even though it was level ground.” — Darren Connor, Providence Health Professional

It’s true:

Virtual reality does this magical thing where it whisks people away and convinces them that they’re doing something else. When the HMD completely covers the wearer’s head and redirects their senses, one can’t blame the body for convincing the brain, “I am here.”

Why does that matter in-context? Well, it’s simple. Many of us will get sick or sustain injuries throughout our lifetime, and understandably these injuries and ailments will come with some chronological period of intense or debilitating pain. And what do humans want to do with debilitating pain?

Assuming that you’re human and you know what I’m talking about firsthand — we want to get rid of that pain as fast as possible, so that we can get back to important matters in our productive lives.

Sorry, what epidemic?

When I needed to get my wisdom teeth pulled at age 15, I was in so much pain that I ended up spending a 5-day stint laying on my parents’ upstairs couch conked out of my mind on Vicodin. Which is totally normal, ask anybody who’s ever had their wisdom teeth pulled.

Opioids, such as Vicodin, are the pharmaceutical industry standard for transporting patients away from their pain. Unfortunately, the same qualities that make them highly effective also make them painfully addictive.

This class of painkillers, made notorious by globally high addiction rates to both legal products (morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, etc.) and illegal products (heroin), is now culpable for hooking as few as 1 in 4 patients prescribed to similar medications over longer stretches of time.

Generally, it isn’t uncommon to see cases of people shifting their addictive dependencies from one type of opioid to another. As a result, western society has silently endured an opioid epidemic which has only escalated over time.

So where does VR tie back in?

Well, drugs probably aren’t going away anytime soon. There‘s too much money on the line, and I’m not so bold as to believe that I can feasibly crack this nut by making obtuse claims such as “VR will absolutely, totally replace opioids!” or similar.

Frankly, that isn’t what this article is even about. Instead, let’s return to the root of VR’s appeal: the experience.

Imagine this:

The lenses go over your eyes, a cozy pair of headphones covers your ears, preferably you’re holding some sort of “hand” controllers such as the Rift’s Touch system or the Vive’s Wands. You’re engaging with something that feels both real and completely fantastic. Maybe you’re being toured through Oculus’s First Contact app and you find that objects react logically to your treatment of them, or maybe you’re experiencing zero-gravity for the first time and you look down and you see your new body.

And then it clicks; you’re there. Or at least you identify as being there, which is what makes these experiences feel so real in hindsight. It wasn’t just a character on a screen — no, it was you.

Your brain is no longer stuck in the body of a person who is in pain and reliant solely on pharmaceuticals to get through that pain. You are convinced that you've been going on journeys as somebody who is not in pain, and that you had a believable presence while you were there.

It was one hell of a trip. You can’t wait to go back.


Certain medical practitioners are beginning to catch up with the real reality of virtual reality.

In Providence’s study, which included the administration of Firsthand Technology’s therapy apps “COOL!” and “GLOW!” to a relatively small sample of underneath 50 participants, 29% more pilot patients experienced a decrease in resting pain after exploring virtual reality than did their VR-deprived counterparts.

Granted, the data is limited by the sample size, but what we’re observing is the placebo effect at work. Here’s the clincher: We know VR does something for pain, and that “something” is real for those who are affected.

PORTLAND, OR — FEB 26, 2018: Joshua Young (Design Reality PDX) prepares to transition after Raina Tamakawa & Darren Connor (Providence Health) present their findings to a crowd of VR enthusiasts at New Relic’s office in Portland, OR on February 26, 2018 (Gabriel Moss)

Again, where does this translate back into the opioid epidemic?

What if addicts started kicking their opioid cravings because they could instead redirect their physiological dependencies onto something that both completely removes them from their own head and provides long-term health benefits?

What if such physiological dependencies never begin in certain patients, because they’d been prescribed a lesser dose of opioid medications due to the effectiveness of VR treatment in bolstering their prognosis?

At this time, it’s difficult to tell if/when VR treatment will be administered on such a scale. What we do know, however, is that this iteration of VR is still young and that adjacent industries have plenty of room to grow and learn alongside it.

Someday, the availability of this technology might make all the difference in the world for your friend or loved one. And that’s the point, isn’t it?