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Virtual Reality Studied for Chronic Cancer Pain

Woman with VR headset

(Hammer & Tusk, Unsplash.

6 May 2022. A software company is partnering with a psychologist to explore virtual reality working with mindfulness for relieving pain in cancer patients. Rocket VR Health in Boston, a designer of virtual reality software as prescription digital therapies, is collaborating with Linda Carlson, a clinical psychologist at University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada who specializes in behavioral aspects of cancer care.

Many, if not most, cancer patients need to deal with recurring pain as a result of their cancer or treatments for the disease itself. Rocket VR cites research published in 2016 showing more than half (55%) of cancer patients experience pain during cancer treatments, with nearly four in 10 (39%) reporting chronic pain even after treatment. About two-thirds (66%) of advanced or terminal cancer patients report pain, with nearly four in 10 cancer patients overall (38%) reporting pain at moderate to severe levels.

Rocket VR Health is a developer of virtual reality software to meet mental health needs of cancer patients. The company says its software is designed to provide immersive experiences that take cancer patients into stress-reducing locations to help relieve anxiety and depression associated with cancer by reducing production of stress-related hormones. In addition, says Rocket VR, its software can incorporate principles of leading psycho-social therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness.

Linda Carlson studies psychological and social aspects of cancer at University of Calgary’s medical school. A current project in Carlson’s lab is the One-Mind Study investigating mindfulness-based cancer recovery, a meditation program for cancer patients to help deal with stress and anxiety. The project is recruiting breast and colorectal cancer patients in Alberta, and conducted remotely, thus requiring high-speed Internet connections and a computer or tablet.

Daily virtual reality-guided mindfulness exercises

Carlson’s study with Rocket VR aims to test virtual reality with mindfulness to relieve chronic pain in cancer patients. Mindfulness, says the company, is believed to help relieve chronic pain in cancer patients by regulating emotional and physical resistance to pain. Virtual reality, says Rocket VR, can provide the immersive experience to help focus the patient’s attention on the present moment, thus making mindfulness more effective for controlling pain.

“Our team at Rocket VR believes virtual reality therapies have the potential to change the way cancer care is delivered,” says Rocket VR Health CEO and co-founder Sid Desai in a company statement released through Cision. Desai adds, “Collaborating with leading cancer centers and experts like Dr. Carlson will bring us one step closer to developing leading evidence-based digital therapeutics for cancer patients and survivors.”

The clinical trial, called Virtual Mind, is enrolling 15 cancer survivors to take part in daily virtual reality-guided mindfulness exercises at home for six weeks. Participants are tested before and after the intervention period on the extent of their pain, and related psycho-social factors such as sleep, anxiety and depression symptoms, and fatigue. The study appears to have no control or comparison group. The company says the study is approved by the cancer health research board in Alberta.

“Even in the face of something as difficult and life-threatening as cancer,” notes Carlson, “mindfulness can be a tool for personal and collective growth and transformation. Through the Virtual Mind study, Rocket VR Health is helping us gauge the potential of virtual reality technologies to achieve meaningful clinical improvements for cancer patients.”

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