Pain management is a major sector in healthcare. The problem has always been there, and it always will be. As long as we have diseases, injuries and major surgeries, pain management will be an area healthcare providers grapple with.

But unlike disease, which can be cured in some cases, pain can only be managed. And the opioid crisis that was making headlines before the world health pandemic took center stage has spotlighted the need for alternative means of effectively treating pain.

Guess who consumes 80% of the world’s opioid supply?

Yep. It’s us. It’s true that the overall opioid prescribing rate in the U.S. has been on the decline since 2012, and that’s certainly trending in the right direction. But the amount of opioids prescribed per person is still around three times higher than it was in 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So, opioids are still a significant problem in America.

Why do we use so much of the world’s opioid supply? It is estimated that over 100 million Americans suffer long-term, chronic pain.

AR/VR have stepped up to the plate

What were once mostly considered high-tech toys used primarily for gaming and entertainment, have taken on new uses. Augmented and virtual reality (AR & VR), combined with coping strategies like mindfulness training and stress-reduction, are being looked at as an effective alternative for people who live with chronic or difficult-to-treat pain, according to Patrick Allen, a principal of healthcare business consulting at EPAM Continuum.

AR and VR technologies can be programmed to offer an immersive experience designed to take a patient’s mind off of their pain. At the same time, feel-good endorphins are released, which provide even longer-term pain relief. There are very few, if any, side effects to AR/VR therapy, and that is a huge benefit.

Early results from studies conducted at some universities on the West Coast are very promising, per Allen. Still, using AR/VR for pain management likely won’t become a widespread practice until much more research is done and evidence is published.

Additionally, academia and the business sector will need to work together. A few key things need to be happening, including funding for research, starting the conversation about insurance coverage for this type of therapy and creating an effective and scalable business model.

Hope for the future

New ways of thinking to address the opioid epidemic are going to be needed if we want to save resources and lives. AR and VR are just two ways that medicine and technology are working together to innovate. This innovation partnership can and will take other forms, like research on more effective nonprescription treatments and deeper study and understanding of the neuroscience of pain.