SAN DIEGO (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – When pain strikes arthritis patients, a beach trip may be the last thing on their minds. But a Los Angeles rheumatologist says a virtual voyage to the shore – or the fjords of Iceland or a Cirque du Soleil performance – may be just what they need to find relief without leaving their chairs.

Swamy Venuturupalli, MD , has been testing virtual reality (VR) software on patients as part of a clinical feasibility study into its use to treat rheumatologic pain. It appears to be the first VR study in rheumatology.

“It’s not just a distraction technique,” Dr. Venuturupalli, a rheumatologist in private practice and clinical associate professor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the University of California, Los Angeles, said in an interview. “There seem to be effects beyond that. The experiences bring on a deep relaxation state, similar to what can be achieved through meditation.”

Dr. Venuturupalli is working with gastroenterologist Brennan Spiegel, MD , a VR researcher who talked about the power of the treatment in a presentation at the annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology.

“Like a drug, we have to understand when and how to use this. It can be very powerful,” Dr. Spiegel, professor of medicine and public health at UCLA and director of Health Services Research at Cedars-Sinai Health System, said in his presentation.

Since the 1990s, researchers have explored the potential of VR in medical areas ranging from pain management to treatment of phobias and posttraumatic stress disorder.

“In recent years, VR technology has become increasingly affordable, immersive, flexible, and portable, enabling its use in a broad range of environments, including the inpatient medical setting,” wrote researchers in a 2017 systematic review of 11 randomized, controlled VR trials. “The capacity of VR to modulate subjective experience makes it a compelling intervention in inpatient medical settings, where VR may offer respite from the confining nature of medical wards, or where it may augment or replace analgesics in pain management” ( Innov Clin Neurosci. 2017 Jan-Feb;14[1-2]:14-21 ).

In his ACR presentation, Dr. Spiegel said VR allows patients to escape the “psychosocial jail cell” of a hospital room. “We can put them on a helicopter and fly them over Icelandic fjords or let them sit on stage during a Cirque du Soleil performance.”

In terms of pain, he pointed to a 2017 study that he conducted with colleagues at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. In 100 inpatients with pain scores of 3 or more on a 10-point scale, researchers compared a onetime 3-dimensional VR immersion via headset to exposure to a 2-dimensional nature video. Both interventions lasted 15 minutes.

Those in the VR group (n = 50) had greater pain improvement than did those in the 2-D group (–1.3 vs –0.6 points; P = .008), and the percentage of patients whose pain diminished was higher (65% vs. 40%; P = .01; number needed to treat = 4) ( JMIR Ment Health. 2017 Jan-Mar;4[1]:e9 ).

Researchers reported no adverse events in the study. However, Dr. Spiegel said patients who undergo VR treatments may feel vertigo, especially if the technology is subpar, and there is a theoretical risk of seizure.

He also noted that VR can cause other negative effects. One patient had a panic attack during an immersive experience of simply throwing balls at cartoon teddy bears in a virtual environment. In this patient, “any concept of violence was enough to trigger a panic attack,” Dr. Spiegel said.

But another immersive virtual experience, putting her on a stage at Cirque du Soleil performance, was a success. “It empowered her, it made her feel brave,” Dr. Spiegel said.

He cautioned about limits of VR: Not every patient is eligible, will want to use it, or will benefit. And while the headsets used in VR have improved, he said, there’s still a way to go to make them more comfortable.

As for cost, VR equipment can be pricey. Hunter Hoffman, director of a virtual reality research center at the University of Washington, Seattle, told MIT Technology Review that the equipment for a VR pain study cost $35,000.

Dr. Venuturupalli, the rheumatologist who’s working with Dr. Spiegel, said his clinic is testing VR technology in patients with chronic pain syndromes. They’re immersed in environments such as one that simulates swimming with dolphins. “Some of my patients try to reach out and touch the dolphin in that state,” he said.

The feasibility study, now in progress, aims to enroll 20 patients and be completed by next March, Dr. Venuturupalli said. So far, the time span of improvement in patients has been variable, he said.

“Our goal is to have a full-fledged virtual reality clinic,” he said. “Like we prescribe physical therapy, we might have a VR therapy prescription that might include certain experiences. And as this technology gets cheaper and cheaper, our patients can have it at their own homes.”

Dr. Spiegel and Dr. Venuturupalli reported no relevant disclosures. Dr. Venuturupalli reports that his study is using donated VR technology from AppliedVR. The firm has created a partnership with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.