Dose of virtual reality prescribed to treat pain patients

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- What if you went to the doctor to treat your pain and the prescription was for a video game? A clinic in Knoxville, Tennessee is leading the country with virtual reality pain management.

Ted Jones, a clinical psychologist at Pain Consultants of East Tennessee, talks with patients suffering from pain every day.

A lot of them have the same complaints about their treatments.

"'I hate these drugs, they cloud my head.' 'I can't really think but I don't know what else to do.' 'I can't really function if I don't have anything,'" Jones recapped some of the complaints he's heard from patients using opioids.

He's hoping that's about to change with the click of a button. Well, at least that's part of it.

This clinic is the first in the country to use virtual reality games to help patients cope with chronic pain.

"When somebody is in doing virtual reality, their pain is down 60 to 70 percent, twice as effective as morphine," said Jones.

Patients wear a set of 3D lenses, pop on some noise-cancelling head phones and dive into an adventure down a snowy river, tossing fish to hungry otters. Forgot one? No problem, the 360-degree view lets patients turn in any direction, never losing sight of the virtual world.

"Your brain says you're there, rather than just looking at something, so it's a qualitative difference with the brain, which makes it more immersive and cuts the pain," he said.

That's all it is, a distraction from the pain that tricks the brain into forgetting what hurts, and that impact could go even further.

"It lasted an hour, two hours, a day, two days afterwards they had pain relief, so it has some residual effect. Nobody is really sure the neurobiology of why that's occurring, but it does," he said. "So, it looks like it's a wonderful candidate for treatment of both chronic pain, not just acute pain."

The clinic is working with insurance companies, trying to figure out how to put these treatment into people's plans so they can start prescribing it.

It's not meant to fully replace medication yet, but this dose of virtual reality might be the easiest pill for patients to swallow.

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