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Digital therapies have a real future

Virtual reality (VR) platforms are providing welcome pain relief for patients.

A study by America’s Cedars-Sinai earlier this year, found that when VR was used on 100 hospitalised patients with high scores on the 0 to 10 Numeric Pain Rating Scale, it provided relief. Taking a virtual flight over Iceland – and swimming with whales – reduced pain levels by 24%.

We believe virtual reality hijacks the senses, but in a good way,” explained Brennan Spiegel, Director of Cedars-Sinai’s Health Service Research.

And VR is now showing promise in an area where drugs simply don’t work – in paraplegics suffering with phantom body pains.

Researchers in Switzerland, at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), have tested a VR system which creates a ‘body illusion’. It involves a VR headset, dummy legs, a camera and two rods. The scientists tap the patient on the back while the patient simultaneously views the dummy legs, which are being tapped by the rods, from above – through the VR goggles. Despite knowing where the sensation is coming from, the patient feels like it is originating from the paralysed legs.

“We managed to provoke an illusion: the illusion that the subject’s legs were being lightly tapped, when in fact the subject was actually being tapped on the back, above the spinal cord lesion,” said Olaf Blanke, a neuroscientist at EPFL. “When we did this, the subjects also reported that their pain had diminished.”

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