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New weapon in opioid fight: Virtual reality to manage pain

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports nearly 50 million Americans live with chronic pain. And many take opioids to deal with it.

“It became the quick fix," said Jeff Hathaway, a physical therapist and CEO & Founder of Breakthrough Physical Therapy. “Give someone a pill, and then they’ll be able to do more."

Hathaway said we were taught the body tells the brain how to perceive pain when the opposite is true.

“The brain decides whether the signal it’s getting is important and whether you should feel pain or not," he said.

Hathaway said the key is giving patients the tools to desensitize their central nervous system and lower their sensitivity to pain. He’s using a new weapon in the fight against pain: a virtual reality headset instead of a pill bottle.

He’s using virtual reality technology combined with physical therapy to help patients manage pain without pills.

Patients are asked to rate their pain level and concentrate on mindful meditation.

Mia Hrabec, who did the VR sessions pre- and post-surgery, is doing amazingly well just four months out of spine surgery.

“I had what is called a meningioma which is a benign tumor on my spinal cord,” Hrabec said.

She underwent a five-hour surgery to remove the tumor. But Hrabec was determined not to rely on opioids for pain.

“Pain medication was a concern for me, because I have seen the effects on family members and loved ones,” said Hrabec.

She only took three of the oxycodone she was prescribed.

“This is a game-changer," Hathaway said. "We can see a complete elimination or at least a reduction.”

Hrabec is feeling stronger every day and said if she can do it anyone can.

“You can manage your pain without pain medication,” Hrabec said.

Breakthrough therapy tracked post-surgical patients in the program for one year and found that the cost of care was reduced by 45%, which meant fewer pain medications and fewer ER visits. The developers of VR therapy hope to make it part of a physical therapy regimen in centers around the country.

Right now, insurance covers the VR sessions as part of a physical therapy program. If used without insurance, the cost is $90 a session.

For more information on VR therapy for pain, visit www.BreakThrough-PT.com.