Caregiving, Health Services, Partners, Technology

Virtual Reality – A real option for pain management

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 susan.tupper@saskhealthauthority.ca or 306-655-1041, or Kirstie Gibson (research assistant) at kig579@mail.usask.ca 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.

Health Services, Important Notices, Partners, Research

Pain Knowledge Needs of Family Caregivers and Persons with Dementia

The Saskatoon Council on Aging [SCOA] is pleased to collaborate with Dr. Susan Tupper on the research project “Pain Knowledge Needs of Family Caregivers and Persons with Dementia: Role of Virtual Reality as a Training Modality”. As a leading organization in the province dedicated to supporting positive aging through programs and services that enhance health, dignity, and independence for older adults, SCOA recognizes the importance of this research project for our community members.

Dr. Tupper and the Pain Dementia Virtual Reality Research Team have proposed to create an innovative training program on pain management for family caregivers and people with cognitive impairments related to dementia. Incorporating virtual reality videos into the training materials is an exciting new way to teach family members and people with dementia about pain. The training materials will be developed based on family member input, and their perspectives on the new virtual reality video will help shape the training program in ways that truly support older adults in Saskatchewan. This education will help our families to better cope with pain and prevent suffering and the many negative consequences of living with pain.

In the news: 

CBC Saskatoon May 20, 2019: Pain researcher uses VR to help caregivers deal with dementia patients’ pain. 

CBC Blue Sky May 29, 2019: Managing Acute and Chronic Pain: A panel of Saskatchewan Experts 

Saskatoon Tech Company Using  virtual reality to improve dementia care

The research is funded by the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation and Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation Advancement Inc.

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