More than 100 million Americans experience ongoing pain. According to one Congressional report, “for every physician certified in pain care, there are more than 28,500 Americans living with chronic pain,” suggesting that the U.S. has poor ability to meet demand for expert pain care. Similarly, colleagues and I previously reported that access to behavioral pain care in the U.S. remains poor for a variety of reasons, including few trained and available local therapists and insurance barriers.

Poor access to behavioral pain care underscores a need to investigate the effectiveness of at-home skills-based digital pain therapies. One of these therapies is virtual reality (VR). As chief science advisor for AppliedVR, I help translate behavioral medicine for pain into the VR space—and then we study its effect.

Earlier this month, we published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research – Formative Research (JMIR-FR) results for our pilot study that tested the analgesic (pain-relieving) benefit of VR for chronic pain. The VR treatment included evidence-based pain management skills typically taught by therapists to patients individually or in pain management programs that are often inaccessible to people in the community.

Our study was conducted in people with chronic low back pain or fibromyalgia. Participants were randomized to one of two treatment groups: (1) skills-based VR or (2) the same skills-based treatment delivered in audio format only. Both treatments were delivered over 21 days. Our study design was rigorous because we compared the same treatment delivered two ways, thereby allowing us to test the immersive effects of VR.

At post-treatment, we found significant reductions for average pain intensity, and pain-related interference in activity, mood, sleep, and stress. The improvement in symptoms were superior for participants in the VR treatment group compared to participants in the audio treatment group.

These preliminary findings are promising and lay the foundation for additional research on VR interventions for chronic pain. We are midstream in the next phase of research which continues our investigations of therapeutic VR for chronic back pain.

We are recruiting participants with chronic back pain to understand how VR may help. The study is open to anyone living in the United States. If you’d like to learn more about the study or see if you’re eligible to participate, you can learn more at this website.

To learn more about the research we are conducting at Stanford, please visit our new lab website.