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Virtual reality manages pain without opioids

RALEIGH, N.C. – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports nearly 50 million Americans live with chronic pain. Many of them take opioids to deal with it.

Now, a new weapon in the fight against pain has some reaching for a virtual reality headset instead of the pill bottle.

Mia Hrabec underwent a five-hour surgery to remove a tumor in her spine.

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," she said.

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

Hathway 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.

Hathway said the key is giving patients the tools to desensitize their central nervous system and lower their sensitivity to pain.

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. Hrabec did the VR sessions before and after surgery. She only took three of the oxycodones she was prescribed.

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

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

"You can manage your pain without pain medication," she 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 emergency room visits.

The developers of the 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, click here.