How virtual reality is being used to fight the opioid crisis

virtual reality opioid crisis
(Pixabay photo)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that between 1999 and 2017, nearly 400,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose. This number is staggering and has caught the attention of people around the globe. Experts and researchers have spent countless hours coming up with new treatments and technologies that can help those who struggle with this disease called addiction.

People who have addictions are usually hyper-focused on using their drug or substance of choice. They continue to use even when they suffer negative consequences. Addiction is a complicated condition of the brain that changes a person’s behaviors, body functions, and how they think. Luckily, opioid addiction is a treatable condition.

There are a few ways to treat addiction that have been around for decades. However, because of the severity of the opioid crisis, researchers and doctors are looking for new ways to ease the struggle of addiction and allow those with the disease to recover and heal. One novel way that experts are hopeful and excited about is the use of evolving technologies such as virtual reality (VR).

When you think of VR, you might think of video games or funny videos of people dodging images as they look at a screen inside a headset. However, virtual reality is an immersive technology that can make the person feel as though they are transferred to another world. It evokes emotions and can even be a safe place to learn and practice new skills. This escape from the difficult world around them might just be what those who struggle with addiction need to recover fully.

Understanding the impact of the opioid crisis

Opioids are a classification of drugs made up of legal and illegal substances. The most well-known illicit opiate is heroin. Prescription pain relievers such as codeine, morphine, fentanyl and oxycodone also fall into this drug classification. Legal opioids have always been used to treat moderate to severe short-term pain in patients with cancer or after surgical procedures. However, for many years, the medical community prescribed these potent pain relievers more often than they should.

The opioid crisis didn’t happen overnight. It took several years of providers being misinformed and patients misusing, abusing, and diverting drugs to get us to the peak of the crisis. It started in the late 1990s when pharmaceutical companies told the medical community that these drugs were not habit-forming. Providers began prescribing pain medications at a rapid rate and patients became hooked. As the crisis raged on, lawmakers and the community at large called for change.

Cracking down on opioids

Because of the opioid epidemic and the number of Americans who have lost their fight against opiate addictions, there has been a significant crack-down on these drugs. The CDC issued prescribing guidelines that providers can use to determine if initiating or continuing opioids for long-term pain is appropriate. Providers must remember that prescription painkillers are not a first-line treatment for chronic pain. They are encouraged to establish measurable goals and discuss the benefits and risks with the patient. If opioids are prescribed for long-term pain, clinicians should perform routine drug tests to monitor for misuse and diversion.

While these changes to physician prescribing practices are good for the population at large, many patients complain that the tighter opioid control is harming them. Patients with conditions that cause excruciating pain are having difficulty finding physicians who will assume their care and treat their discomfort. This has led to patients experiencing an increase in pain and a decrease in their quality of life, and researchers are turning to tech for new ways to treat the condition.

Could VR be the missing link in opioid treatment?

You might think of VR as a new technology. However, it’s actually been around for a few decades. VR, as we know it today, was first introduced by video game companies who transferred players into the worlds of gaming characters. As technology improved, many industries outside of the gaming community hailed VR as a bright spot in our future and started researching new ways to use tech advancement.

In 2012 the University of Houston established the Virtual Reality Clinical Research Lab. The idea behind using VR for addiction treatment started by helping smokers learn to refuse cigarettes. The next substance they tested was alcohol. As they achieved success with these addictions, the researchers began helping those with injection drug use.

VR is based on exposure therapy principles which aim to place the user in real-life situations in which they are exposed to the drug to see how they respond. The exciting thing about VR in addiction treatment is that it can set up realistic environments, such as a party or a bar. It can even display items like a syringe and a spoon to trigger a heroin craving in the user, but it’s done in a safe place with trained professionals nearby to coach and support the patient.

It’s critical to point out that VR isn’t a quick fix or complete therapy for addictions. However, when it’s used in combination with other treatment regimens, it might help the patient in ways never explored before. The hope of VR for addiction treatment is that individuals with addiction can learn how to control and manage cravings appropriately in a safe environment.

Looking towards the future

The medical and technology industries are striving daily to find new treatments for some of the hardest to treat conditions known to man. They use the latest technologies, the internet of things, and VR as methods to combat opioid addictions and bring healing to those who suffer. As science continues to advance, we could be on the brink of a new dawn in the fight against opioids.

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