Uncomfortable after eating? Enter a virtual world to get help

November 2, 2022 – People with functional dyspepsia – also called indigestion – often experience stomach pain, nausea, frequent belching and other gastrointestinal symptoms after eating.

Technology to the rescue? An immersive, three-dimensional experience using a virtual reality headset for about 20 minutes a day for 2 weeks significantly improved symptoms and quality of life for indigestion sufferers, compared to a control group, a new study reveals.

“We thought functional dyspepsia might be particularly well suited to benefit from VR therapy,” says study lead researcher David Cangemi, MD, a gastroenterologist at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. “Our study suggests that virtual reality could be an effective and safe new treatment. »

Although virtual reality has improved symptoms of indigestion, researchers still don’t know exactly how it works. There are some theories: Immersion in a different world keeps people away from stomach aches. Virtual reality could also alter the signals sent between the brain and the gut, easing discomfort and pain, Cangemi says.

The study was presented at the 2022 Annual Meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology in Charlotte, North Carolina. The research won an award for excellence in clinical research.

See more medical uses for virtual reality

There has been more interest in the medical uses of virtual reality in recent years. Virtual reality has reduced acute and chronic pain symptoms in different clinical settings, for example, Cangemi says.

Functional dyspepsia affects approximately 10% of the population. Some people report fewer symptoms after undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of talk therapy, but it can be expensive and access to it is limited. Additionally, there are no FDA-approved medications specifically for dyspepsia. Some people try to manage symptoms with over-the-counter medications such as Prilosec, Nexium, or Prevacid or with prescription Lyrica, an anti-epileptic drug also used to treat pain.

But these agents can cause side effects, Cangemi says. “Therefore, new safe and effective treatment options for functional dyspepsia are badly needed.”

In the first study looking at virtual reality for the treatment of indigestion, researchers randomly assigned 27 people to virtual reality and 10 others to a control group. People in the treatment group could choose an active, passive, or guided virtual reality experience, while people in the control group watched two-dimensional nature videos.

People used the VR headset a little more than once per day for an average of 23 minutes per day. The average age of study participants was approximately 45 years old and 81% were female.

People completed questionnaires to report pain and quality of life at the start of the study and to track any changes at week 1 and week 2. Although symptoms became less severe in both groups at 2 weeks, people in the VR group improved significantly more on the standard symptom severity scale.

Similarly, quality of life scores improved for everyone in the study within 2 weeks, but the treatment group reported greater improvements on one measure of quality of life.

A total of 17 people, including 11 in the VR group, reported adverse effects, although none were considered serious. One person in the VR group withdrew from the study due to migraines.

Limitations of the study include a small number of participants and its short duration of 2 weeks. The researchers plan to study virtual reality in a larger number of people with functional dyspepsia and for a longer period of time. They would also like to compare the improvements between virtual reality and medication taken to relieve symptoms and/or determine if the combination of technology and medication leads to even greater improvements.

“Very exciting” study

“Because we don’t have a lot of options, it’s very exciting to have a potential new treatment,” says Samir Shah, MD, chief of gastroenterology at Miriam Hospital in Providence, RI. who was not affiliated with the study.

“Not everyone can access cognitive behavioral therapy with the cost,” he says. “If virtual reality is inexpensive and accessible to people, it’s another tool we would like to have in our toolbox to help our patients with functional dyspepsia.”

Asked about the cost of VR technology, Shah pointed out that many smartphones can be fitted with a low-cost device to turn them into 3D virtual reality devices.

Future studies with larger numbers are warranted, says Shah, who is also president of the American College of Gastroenterology and clinical professor of medicine at Brown University.

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