Virtual reality against cancer pain

A new study showed that VR provided greater pain relief than control in adult patients with moderate-to-severe pain related to cancer and its therapies.

In a recent clinical trial, a 10-minute virtual reality (VR) session significantly reduced pain in hospitalised cancer patients. The results were published by Wiley Online in Cancer, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society. Patients experienced lasting benefits.

Most people with cancer experience pain, and treatment usually involves medication, including opioids. VR sessions that immerse the user in new environments have been shown to be a non-invasive, non-pharmacological way to reduce pain in various patient populations, but data on cancer patients was lacking. To investigate this question, Hunter Groninger, MD at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and his colleagues randomised 128 adults with cancer with moderate to severe pain to a 10-minute immersive VR intervention. The VR experience involved serene and pleasant environments or a 10-minute two-dimensional guided imagery experience on an iPad tablet.

The researchers found that both interventions reduced pain, but the VR sessions had a greater impact. Based on patient-reported scores from 0 to 10, patients in the guided imagery group reported an average decrease of 0.7 in pain scores, while those in the VR group reported an average decrease of 1.4. Twenty-four hours after the assigned intervention, participants in the VR group reported a sustained improvement in pain severity (1.7 points less than at baseline before the VR intervention) compared to participants in the guided imagination group (only 0.3 points less than at baseline before the active control intervention).

Participants assigned to the VR intervention also reported improvements in pain ‘annoyance’ (how much the pain bothered them, regardless of its severity) and general discomfort, and expressed satisfaction with the intervention.

According to the authors, the study results suggest that immersive VR may be a useful non-pharmacological strategy to alleviate cancer pain. This study was conducted on inpatients, but future studies should evaluate VR therapies for pain also in outpatient settings and explore the impact of different VR content to improve different types of cancer-related pain in different patient populations. Perhaps one day cancer pain patients will be prescribed VR therapy to use at home to improve their pain experience, in addition to the usual cancer pain management strategies such as medications.

  1. Groninger H, Violanti D, Mete M. Virtual reality for pain management in hospitalized patients with cancer: a randomized controlled trial. Cancer. 2024; 1-9. doi:10.1002/cncr.35282