Using Virtual Reality for Addiction Treatment

Written by Chloe Nicosia

Using Virtual Reality for Addiction Treatment – A ‘New World’ of Possibilities for Therapy

In recent years, virtual reality worlds have opened up to everyone with the innovative VR technology available today. Researchers are jumping at the opportunity to incorporate VR into a treatment plan, allowing practiced real-world situations in therapy to more closely mimic actual situations. Virtual reality for addiction could open new doors for the treatment of addictive behaviors.

The opioid epidemic is estimated to claim as many as 115 lives each day that it continues, according to information collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2017. Despite the best efforts of government and addiction treatment centers, the opioid abuse continues to escalate. Dr. Albert Rizzo, one of the first medical researchers to use virtual reality for addiction in the 1990’s, believes that through cue-reactivity using VR systems, it may help to treat many addicts who struggle with impulse control.

How Does Virtual Reality for Addiction Work?

In traditional therapy, the patient imagines and acts out real-world situations where their control of cravings is tested. The imaginative scenes created within the therapeutic setting can help to prepare someone for going to a party where people are doing drugs; however, the techniques can only go so far since none of the environmental and social triggers are present.

Virtual reality for addiction takes this situation a step further by making the patient feel as if they are really there, causing relapse triggers. These triggers can then be treated since the person is in a therapeutic environment with their therapist. Many of the researchers of this technology for addiction treatment believe that the traditional setting lacks the realistic environmental triggers and are therefore not as effective as they could be. Through VR, the real world can be brought into the clinical setting, making it more apt at practicing and recalling the skills needed to prevent relapse.

A similar approach was already studied in 2004 by Dr. Patrick Bordnick. He proved that through virtual reality, it was able to generate cue reactivity in smokers so that Bordnick could then treat the condition. He found that out of the study sample, those treated with VR smoked less than the patients who weren’t.

Is it Affordable?

In Dr. Bordnick’s initial research into the technology, he abandoned it because the headsets and powerful computers required to run it put it out of reach of the average person. Today it’s possible to buy the apparatus needed for a few hundred dollars, and it can now be run from a standard computer and even on the new Smartphones of today. As VR technology and computers continue to drop in price, Dr. Bordnick believes that it will be possible for people to set up VR sets in their home and as portable devices far easier, opening the door to many other possibilities that the technology offers.

Using VR in a Different Way

We’ve discussed using technology in addiction treatment by putting a person into a situation that can cue relapse triggers, but Noah Robinson, a Ph.D. candidate at Vanderbilt University, believes that VR can be used to interrupt a relapse. Instead of putting a person into a situation where they feel cravings, he wants to give a recovering addict a place to escape by using therapeutic rooms in a program called VRChat. These rooms may have calming colors and soothing music to help calm a person going through emotional distress that could cause a relapse.

Addiction treatment centers welcome using technology in addiction treatment. For more information on new techniques to treat addiction, or to find a treatment center near you, call Better Addiction Care at 1.800.429.7690.