How Virtual Reality Could Help Patients Battling Substance Use

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How Virtual Reality Could Help Patients Battling Substance Use
Simulated environments could help both doctors and patients during substance use disorder recovery.

Virtual reality is making its way into the addiction treatment world, as a simulation tool that can help both doctors and patients during recovery from substance use disorder. 

The virtual environment means patients don’t need to imagine their experience. The immersive nature of VR can provide a realistic environment to relax in during a detox period — or a safe way to deal with stress during exposure therapy. For example, a recovering alcohol use disorder patient might put on the goggles to enter a virtual bar.

"Their heart rate goes up, their skin gets flushed. They have this immense craving for alcohol and they can't control themselves. And so what we're able to do with virtual reality is create a synthetic environment that seems real and is able to create the same symptoms of, you know, heart rate going up, skin getting flushed, wanting alcohol. But we're able to do it in a safe place,"  said Dr. Harbir Singh, an emergency room doctor and CEO of Kyle ER, a community hospital in Texas that uses VR as part of the detox process. His experience inspired him to start his own company.

"I've seen too many people die from substance abuse. We already know the opioid epidemic is a major problem. One hundred and thirty people die per day from opioid use. Fourteen hundred people died in Texas in 2016 from opioid use," he said. 

Singh believes VR could help people in different stages of treatment: acute detox, intensive outpatient therapy, or long-term rehab.

VR proponents say it can also help clinicians measure and learn from a patient’s physiological reactions. It could help them better understand the brain, and how to treat certain disorders.

But Singh is quick to point out VR for substance use disorders is new, and, like other VR therapies, more research should be conducted. Clinicians have been experimenting with VR as an intervention for patients for PTSD, anxiety, and certain phobias since the 1990s.