Opioids, or narcotic painkillers, serve as our primary method for alleviating physical distress. They also happen to be a leading cause of death due to their addictive nature. AppliedVR hopes to introduce a safer alternative: virtual reality gaming. They utilize the existing Samsung Gear VR for the hardware, but provides specialized software that offers up a distracting experience that fosters greater pain ignorance.
In essence, patients play a game they cannot lose that involves lobbing balls at bears simply by looking at them (Bear Blast) or throwing food out to hungry animals (Feeding Frenzy). While those sound pretty boring, and the Gear VR doesn't exactly produce the highest-quality 3D imagery, people have described the games as mesmerizing.
It may seem absurd to think of VR as a drug replacement—especially in the role of blocking pain—but it might be just as effective as narcotic analgesics like Vicodin (hydrocodone with acetaminophen). Rachel Metz, writing for the MIT Technology Review, explains:
Brennan Spiegel, who directs health services research at Cedars-Sinai, says researchers found that 20 minutes with the virtual-reality software reduced patients' pain by 24 percent on average; before using VR the patients had a mean pain score of roughly 5.5 on a zero to 10 scale, he says, and afterward it averaged 4.
While those are definitely impressive results, the small studies can't guarantee that level of efficacy across the board. Nevertheless, if it can help only a fraction of people reduce their chronic pain as significantly as opioid drugs, it's science worth pursuing.