Unwell after eating? Enter a virtual world for help

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Nov. 2, 2022 – People with functional dyspepsia — also known as indigestion — often experience abdominal pain, nausea, severe belching, and other gastrointestinal symptoms after eating.

Technology to the rescue? A three-dimensional, immersive experience wearing a virtual reality headset for about 20 minutes a day for 2 weeks improved symptoms and quality of life in people with digestive disorders compared to a control group, a new study shows.

“We thought that functional dyspepsia might be a particularly good candidate to benefit from VR therapy,” says study lead investigator David Cangemi, MD, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL. “Our study suggests that VR could be an effective and safe new treatment.”

Although VR improved symptoms of indigestion, researchers still don’t know exactly how it works. There are a few theories: Immersing yourself in another world distracts people from stomach ache. VR could also change the signals sent between the brain and gut, reducing discomfort and pain, Cangemi says.

The study was presented at the 2022 American College of Gastroenterology Annual Meeting in Charlotte, NC. The research was recognized with an award for excellence in clinical research.

See more medical applications for VR

In recent years, interest in medical applications for VR has increased. For example, virtual reality reduced the symptoms of acute and chronic pain in different clinical settings, says Cangemi.

Functional dyspepsia affects about 10% of the population. Some people report fewer symptoms after cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of talk therapy, but it can be costly and access to it is limited. Also, there are no FDA-approved drugs 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-seizure drug that’s also used to treat pain.

But these drugs can have side effects, Cangemi says. “Therefore, new safe and effective treatment options for functional dyspepsia are urgently needed.”

In the first study looking at VR to treat digestive disorders, researchers randomly assigned 27 people to virtual reality and 10 others to a control group. The people in the treatment group could choose between an active, passive or guided virtual reality experience People in the control group watched two-dimensional nature videos.

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

Participants completed questionnaires at the beginning of the study to report on pain and quality of life and to track any changes at week 1 and week 2. Although symptoms became less severe in both groups at 2 weeks, participants in the VR group continued to improve significantly on the standard symptom severity scale.

Similarly, quality of life scores improved by 2 weeks for all people in the study, but the treatment group reported greater improvements on a quality of life measure.

A total of 17 people, including 11 in the VR group, reported side effects, although none were classified as serious. One person in the VR group dropped out of the study because of migraines.

Limitations of the study are the small number of participants and its short duration of 2 weeks. Researchers plan to study VR in more people with functional dyspepsia and over a longer period of time. They also want to compare the improvements between VR and medications taken to alleviate symptoms and/or determine if the combination of the technology and the medication results in even greater improvements.

“Very exciting” study

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

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

When asked about the cost of VR technology, Shah pointed out that many smartphones can be outfitted with an inexpensive 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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