Patients with severe injuries find relief through virtual reality at Mount Sinai

NEW YORK — A new approach to pain relief sounds more like a video game than a treatment.

CBS2’s John Dias found that with the use of virtual reality, patients with serious injuries find help through a headset.

A few minutes of quiet with a VR headset and 32-year-old Blake Hunt is worlds away.

“Even though I can’t physically move my legs, I can still feel them,” he said.

According to Hunt, the virtual reality treatment reduces his pain.

When he puts on the headset, it’s like sitting on the beach with his feet in the sand. Hunt says he’s reassured by the water and actually gets a literal kick out of the VR legs.

“When movement happens and you see it visually, you can feel it in your body. And it’s like a very refreshing situation, especially when you haven’t moved your legs in years,” he said.

RELATED STORY: Only on CBS2: Queens Hospital uses virtual reality technology to help nurses escape the stress of work

A traumatic injury left Hunt quadriplegic.

“I broke my neck when I was 17 playing soccer in high school,” he said.

He says he’s been suffering from excruciating nerve pain ever since.

“Like tingling all day like feeling stabbed,” he said.

Hunt says prescription drugs and opioids have done him more harm than good, so he’s being treated with immersive technology called VR therapy at Mount Sinai.

“We’re focusing on manipulating areas of pain in the brain,” said Dr. Laura Tabacof, a rehab doctor who works with Hunt. “What we do is put users in an environment where they see limbs performing a specific action or activity. For example people with pain in their arms… they will see hands doing a very triggering activity such as B. working with clay or playing with water. And that will send positive feedback to the brain that reduces activity in those pain centers in the brain.

Tabacof says she is encouraged by the pain relief patients are reporting.

This type of therapy is also known to elicit strong emotional responses – some find the relief overwhelming, others from the visual stimulation.

“We’re not so afraid of evoking emotions because we monitor them throughout the session. So we’re here to calm them down and remove them from the area when we feel that’s too overwhelming,” Tabacof said.

As for Hunt, he says he doesn’t define himself by his limitations. He is socially active and is involved in a professional video game league called Quad Gods. He adds that managing his pain without medication allows him to experience everything fully.

“It makes the nerve pain do other things. I know you couldn’t see me under the mask, but I actually smiled at one point,” he said.

Treatments last about 20 minutes once or twice a week. According to Tabacof, the goal is to expand and even personalize the VR library and ultimately allow patients to receive treatment at home.