Deepa Mann-Kler: Making Pain Fun with VR / AR

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  • The statistics are stark. 28 million adults across the UK suffer from chronic pain, estimated to cost the economy £5 billion annually in lost productivity on top of the emotional, physical and psychological cost to each person, their families and friends.

    24 million opioid prescriptions were issued last year, fuelling opioid addictions, with 10 opioid-related deaths daily. It’s a crisis described as “the silent killer”.

    “People living with pain need choices … and virtual reality and augmented reality can help people feel human again” said Deepa Mann-Kler, CEO and founder of NEON, a company which creates immersive technology software applications targeting at managing patients’ chronic pain.

    Speaking at the recent Women Techmakers conference, she explained that VR is already in widespread use in the treatment of PTSD, depression, anxiety, phobia and addiction rehabilitation.

    Recent medical trials comparing the effect of VR techniques with administering morphine discovered that VR can be twice as effective with results from one study showing a 66% reduction in pain, double that of using morphine. The effects of the pain reduction lasted for up to 30 hours after the session.

    Neon’s Breathe VR application grew out of the Pain Hackathon at Queen’s University Belfast last year organised by the Department of Finance’s Innovation Lab and the Public Health Agency. The chronic pain sufferers present asked for a range of choices to help deescalate their pain.

    BreatheVR helps people relax and focus on their breathing. Having donned a VR headset, users find themselves in a bright, colourful animated meadow, listening to calm music and birds. Asked to inhale deeply through the nose and then out through the mouth, the headset’s microphone detects the exhalation causing the leaves in the VR environment to rise up encouraging a pattern of diaphragmatic breathing. The environment maximises the feeling of immersion and distraction from pain.

    “You don’t need to be in pain to use BreatheVR” explained Deepa. User testing shows positive applications for mindfulness, meditation and improved wellbeing for everyone!

    “Whack a Mo” is a second app Neon have in development. This time it’s an augmented reality game that can be used to remove fear and stress from children undergoing medical procedures like chemotherapy treatment and canula insertion. These procedures can be stressful, and failure delays treatment and increases the cost to the NHS.

    The play element within the game captures the children’s attention and distracts. The process of co-design and co-production with medical staff and children has introduced different levels of difficulty to suit a range of ages. To prevent the novelty wearing off, the game is only available to play within the hospital environment.

    Deepa cautions that “while VR and AR have the capability to deliver much we have to be careful about what we promise in terms of what the technology can achieve. Essentially the technology is there to give people choice. Consumers shouldn’t be passive users of AR and VR, they must be actively involved … it needs to be integrated into the healthcare system and not sit in isolation.”

    It’s an exciting area for NEON.

    “VR has the capability to retrain our neural network and pathways: through neuroplasticity we can rewire our brains … New technology is not to be feared. New technology can be empowering. Neon’s core challenges are how to use technology to offer choice and engagement for those who suffer from chronic pain.”

    Speaking about her own experience of watching her Mum suffer from chronic pain for the last 22 years, Deepa admitted “to be helpless when you see someone you love in pain is devastating.”

    “I believe technology will finally give people choice that has not been afforded to date.”

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