by Susan Tupper, PT, PhD, Strategy Consultant, Pain Quality Improvement, Saskatchewan Health Authority
The idea of being transported to another reality, where you can see, hear, and touch a virtual world as if it were real has been the topic of science fiction since the short story Pygmalion’s Spectacles was penned by Stanley Weinbaum in 1935. Since the mid-1960s, the technology of interactive videos has grown to include flight simulators, video games, exposure treatment for phobias, medical education, and pain management. You may be wondering how virtual reality can affect pain. What can a video do to change arthritis or a disc bulge? The answer to that question lies in knowing how pain works.
Most people think that pain and tissue damage, such as arthritis, are perfectly intertwined. More tissue damage will lead to more pain and vice versa. Fortunately, it’s not that simple. Information about danger or damage to our tissues travels along specialized nerves to the spinal cord and eventually to approximately 20 different areas of the brain that work together to create the experience of pain. We’ve learned a lot about pain over the past 40 years and now know that the signals coming from the tissues are modified at the spinal cord and brain to either increase the signal or completely block it. This is very useful to help us respond appropriately to our environment. For example, if you’re running down the road and sprain your ankle, it’s important to be able to feel pain so you can take care of your ankle until it feels better. However, if there’s a truck speeding toward you, it’s more important to NOT feel pain and get off the road. Once you’re safely out of harm’s way, the ankle pain will slowly appear. Though the tissue signals play a role, the brain determines whether or not we feel pain. The good news is that we can manipulate the brain to change pain. This is where virtual reality comes in.
Our research team is exploring how virtual reality can be used to help people with dementia manage pain. We also want to use virtual reality to train family care providers to recognize pain and better manage pain in themselves and their loved ones.
We are currently recruiting family caregivers for 30-60 minute interviews. We are particularly interested in hearing from male caregivers, those living in rural communities, or those of non-European heritage. The interview can be held on the phone or in a location that’s convenient to you. For more information on how to participate, please contact Dr. Susan Tupper (study lead investigator) at firstname.lastname@example.org or 306-655-1041, or Kirstie Gibson (research assistant) at email@example.com or 306-202-6330.
Our team includes researchers from the Saskatchewan Health Authority, University of Saskatchewan College of Nursing, St. Thomas More College Department of Psychology, and Luxsonic Technologies Inc.. We received funding from the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF) and the Center for Aging and Brain Health Innovation (CABHI) and the Eunice Bilokreli Research Fund through the University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine to support this work. We appreciate the support that SCOA and the Alzheimer’s Society of Saskatchewan have provided as study collaborators.