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How virtual reality could be used to treat chronic pain

12 Mar 2019
How virtual reality could be used to treat chronic pain News image

Swinburne University in Melbourne is conducting novel research that will investigate how virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) could be used to treat chronic pain.

In collaboration with the university’s health partner, Medibank, a team of Swinburne researchers will examine how people experiencing chronic lower back pain interact with VR in Swinburne’s state-of-the-art Virtual Reality Theatre.

Department Chair of Health and Medical Sciences, Associate Professor Rachael McDonald, will lead the project, which aims to identify the types of people who will respond well to VR and AR therapy as a pain treatment.

As the lead in chronic disease and disability research in Swinburne’s Iverson Health Research Institute, Associate Professor McDonald says chronic pain needs to be addressed from a number of areas, both physically and psychologically.

“Our aim is to find out what affects people’s experience in VR and AR and what will help or hinder their engagement in the program,” she says.

“Once we have assessed the participants’ quality of movement through motion capture suits, they will interact with VR through two existing programs. We will then ask their thoughts on the experience and further develop the programs to address their needs.”

Working with a multidisciplinary team

The study will require support from experts in a range of fields, from anatomy and physiotherapy, to interactive media and astrophysics to assist with the VR technology.

The project is one of many strategic collaborations between Swinburne and Medibank as part of a three-year partnership supporting the health and wellbeing of the Swinburne community.

Medibank Chief Medical Officer Linda Swan says Medibank is proud to partner with Swinburne on this important project.

“This is an exciting step forward in exploring the use of alternative treatments for chronic pain, which affects more than 20 per cent of the Australian population.”

Desired outcomes of the research

Associate Professor McDonald hopes this study will allow the team to develop technology that can be used in further research into VR and chronic pain and that can ultimately be applied in a clinical environment.

“Using VR and AR as a distraction for acute pain is increasingly being used as a technique, but what is more novel is the ability to intervene in chronic pain,” she says.

“For the first time, we hope to have evidence of what type of person will or won’t respond to VR and AR therapy to address their chronic pain.”

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