Healthcare Technology Featured Article

May 30, 2023

How Virtual Reality Is Helping Those in Palliative Care

According to the World Health Organization, around 56.8 million people need palliative care every year — and 25.7 million of that number are in their last year of life. Palliative care can help to improve quality of life by relieving feelings of stress, anxiety, nausea, loss of appetite and to reduce pain — and lessen other symptoms that may affect a person’s physical and emotional well-being.

Those who are undergoing treatments for a serious illness may also benefit from alternative care techniques, such as massage therapy, which can help to reduce chronic pain and bodily tensions. Massage can also mitigate the potential for migraines and fatigue, and the feeling of human touch can inspire feelings of positivity and connection.

Often, palliative care experts and providers will assemble a multi-faceted approach to an individual’s care. They do so by devising a package that’s tailored to the client’s personal needs, be it for medical care, patient advocacy, massage or otherwise. Further, caregivers can help minimize emotional distress for both the person and their family — such professionals are equipped with the knowledge of effective and compassionate communication techniques.

A recent development in the field has involved trialing virtual reality (VR) as a palliative care technique. Here’s how this technology — once reserved for gaming, business, training exercises or interactive demonstrations — has been shown to benefit those who are receiving treatments for serious illness.

What Is Virtual Reality?

VR is artificial 3D computer-generated worlds that the user experiences through headphones and head-mounted goggles, which allow them to take in their multi-sensory surroundings. The breathtaking design and the high-tech headsets mean that users are completely immersed in 360° views of locations of their choosing, which they can explore all from the comfort of a chair or bed and at home. Popular locations include cityscapes, tropical beaches, vast and sprawling meadows and even space — to name just a few examples of appealing settings.

Virtual Reality Can Help to Manage Chronic Pain

Growing evidence suggests that virtual reality can help to reduce the feelings of chronic pain. An eight-week study found that pain levels were reduced for 46 percent for those using three-dimensional VR as a part of their treatment.

VR can deploy soothing visual and audible tools that encourage viewers to practice mindfulness and meditation. In this way, chronic pain can be sidelined, as VR enables users to focus and redirect their thoughts to the positive and relaxing elements in front of them.

According to Dr. Binder, the Director of Innovation and a Physiatrist at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, “Stress, anxiety, depression, and fear all contribute to pain … A lot of evidence suggests that if you’re able to treat those, you can help reduce pain.”

Virtual Reality Can Help Reduce Feelings of Depression and Boredom

Some in palliative care are unable to travel due to physical limitations. VR can offer them escapism and the satisfaction that comes with allowing them to score off bucket list items — like swimming with dolphins, taking safari trips, or visiting a museum in a faraway destination.

Further, in a study titled “Virtual reality reduces pain in palliative care–A feasibility trial," it was found that “Most participants described a feeling of joy or happiness following the VR intervention.”

Overall, the user can avoid undergoing any physical stress involved in travelling or strenuous activity while also boosting feelings of excitement and alleviating feelings of boredom.

The Takeaway on Virtual Reality for Palliative Care

For now, quality virtual reality units are considerably expensive mediums. However, studies continue to strengthen the case that there’s a real benefit to this technology. There’s hope that one day VR will become a go-tool tool for end-of-life care and be recognized as truly beneficial in helping to reduce chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and stress for palliative patients.

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