Immersive Virtual Reality

Chronic pain is a significant health issue worldwide.  Recent concerns about rates of opioid addiction and related mortality in people with chronic pain have underlined the need to develop non-pharmacological treatments that can help control pain and improve function.  In MH&E we are exploring Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR) as a method to treat chronic pain. 

senior citizens using VR headsets

In IVR subjects are placed in a three-dimensional, life-sized computer-generated environment via a computer headset.  It has shown great promise as a method to control acute pain, but, as yet, has had only minimal testing in chronic pain.  Our lab is on the forefront of developing feasible protocols that can be used by Occupational Therapists and other clinicians to implement IVR as one tool in multidisciplinary, biopsychosocial treatments for their clients with chronic pain.

IVR Activities

  • IVR experience therapeutic catalogue: We are using principles of activity analysis to evaluate commercially available IVR programs for their usability as a therapeutic medium for people with chronic pain
  • Dosage of IVR: We will evaluate if 10, 20, or 30 minutes of IVR has a larger effect on  symptoms, affect, and tolerance to cutaneous stimuli.  This pilot study will also help us to determine the feasibility of conducting IVR research, including what outcome measures to use, recruitment, and using Ecological Momentary Assessment as a means to collect data.  We are partnering with Megan Driscoll at UPMC Chronic Pain Clinic in Pittsburgh, PA, who will ensure clinician input into the design of the study.  Co-I’s Drs. James Intriligator and Nathan Ward of Tufts University will provide insights into perception, attention, and virtual reality and Dr. Robert Edwards of Brigham and Women’s chronic pain program will provide guidance on using Quantitative Sensory Testing as well as treating people with chronic pain. 
a son showing his father how to use a VR headset

This project is funded by Tufts CTSI NIH Clinical and Translational Science Award (UL1TR002544)

  • Effect of IVR as an adjunct to OT or PT therapy:  We are conducting a pilot study to determine if the addition of IVR immediately after a therapy session improves people with chronic pain’s symptoms, mood, sleep and general function immediately and within 24 hours of that session.  We are partnering with therapists Kimberly Van Damme and Thomas Plante at Braintree Rehabilitation Hospital and New England Rehabilitation Hospital. 

This project is funded by a Small Grant from Encompass Health. 

  • Effects of IVR on Central Sensitization: In this pilot study we will examine the immediate effects of IVR on central sensitization in patients with chronic pain who are on opioids.  We are partnering with Dr. Robert Edwards at Brigham & Woman’s chronic pain program.

Conference Presentations:

  • Feller H, Baird J, Driscoll M, Baker NA. Virtual Reality: An Intervention Approach for Chronic Pain. Pennsylvania Occupational Therapy Association Annual Conference; 2019 Oct; Pittsburgh, PA
  • Driscoll M, Baker NA. Independent Healing: Behavioral activation for chronic pain. Poster. American Occupational Therapy Association Annual Conference, 2018 Apr 19; Salt Lake City, UT.
  • Baker NA, Driscoll M, Breuer P. Multidisciplinary chronic pain care: Evidence, intervention, collaboration. 3-hr Invited talk Annual Mini-Combined Sections Meeting of the Southwest District of the Pennsylvania Physical Therapy Association; 2018 Mar 17; Pittsburgh, PA.