AppliedVR testing the use of at-home virtual reality therapy for chronic pain

Los Angeles-based AppliedVR's virtual reality platform—which uses goggles and headsets to create an immersive, 3D virtual world—has been aimed at alleviating everything from labor pains during childbirth to the pain from burns to discomfort experienced undergoing infusions for cancer treatment.

In total, AppliedVR works with more than 200 hospitals to provide virtual reality therapy to help ease patients' acute pain after surgery or during hospitalization.

The company also has teamed up with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to target and ease chronic pain in the comfort of patient's homes. AppliedVR plans to pilot its immersive VR programs for palliative care and chronic pain with the VA and is also working on clinical trials with Geisinger and Cleveland Clinic to study VR as a replacement for prescription opioids.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the startup sees the potential to use its technology as a home-based therapy for patients suffering from chronic pain.

AppliedVR performed a randomized controlled trial evaluating the effectiveness of people using a virtual reality program at home on themselves to manage their pain. According to that study, published last week in JMIR-FR, the company's digital pain management program can be a successful treatment for chronic pain at home.

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The study analyzed data from 74 people who suffer from chronic lower-back or fibromyalgia pain over a 21-day period. As part of the study, half of the study participants were given VR headsets and watched virtual programs in which they could play games, swim with dolphins, or view scenery.

Participants in the VR group saw a decrease in pain intensity and pain interference with activity and stress, according to the study.

AppliedVR’ program helps patients learn self-management skills grounded in evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy principles, along with providing biofeedback and mindfulness strategies.

"The goal to teach them skills so that when they take the headset off, they are more prepared to live a life that may have pain in it," Josh Sackman, co-founder and president at AppliedVR, told Fierce Healthcare.

The company says it's the first study to look at the effectiveness of VR therapy when self-administered at home by chronic pain patients.

AppliedVR has applied the study’s results to expand its program to eight weeks, which will be tested later this year in additional clinical trials.

"Living with and managing chronic pain daily can be a debilitating and costly challenge, and many patients suffering from it can feel hopeless and desperate for any relief," Sackman said. "As we engage in and accelerate more in-depth clinical research, we want them to know that we’re committed to making VR a reimbursable standard of care for pain."

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Sackman says he was motivated to launch the startup five years ago based on his own personal experiences with pain management. As a child, he was hospitalized and had to undergo intense physical therapy and experienced pain, anxiety, and isolation, he said.

AppliedVR is working to build a VR pharmacy that personalizes therapies, content, and media based on patient needs, according to Sackman.

The company has developed more than 40 different VR modules to provide relaxation, engagement, and mindfulness. And the technology is designed to be ready to use out of the box.

"We developed the software and interface to make it simple for a novice to use," Sackman said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for home-based digital health programs.

People with chronic pain often have limited access to comprehensive pain care that includes skills-based behavioral medicine, said Beth Darnall, Ph.D., AppliedVR’s chief science adviser.

Darnall has been focused on using behavioral medicine to treat pain for 15 years as an associate professor at Stanford University School of Medicine in the department of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine.

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"The practicality of AppliedVR gets to the heart of what’s really my core passion, which is expanding access to comprehensive pain care that is low burden and low cost. And it offers treatments that people enjoy and want to engage in," she said.

Healthcare VR is a growing sector, and other digital health companies are using the technology to address different conditions and medical issues, including mental health.

U.K.-based Oxford VR, which is backed by Optum Ventures, offers a clinically validated virtual reality platform to treat mental health patients. MindMaze recently raised $100 million in funding for its virtual reality technology that has primarily been used for stroke victim therapy in European hospitals.

Health Scholars uses VR for clinical training while another startup, Augmedics, has developed an augmented reality guidance system for surgery.