Medical professionals have been telling patients for years that exercise helps with fibromyalgia and other debilitating conditions that cause chronic pain, but it’s difficult to be motivated to move when it hurts. With the possibility of medication-free relief, however, some patients have been willing to try exergaming.

Exergaming involves using video games to accomplish exercise goals. In a recent study, researchers engaged women diagnosed with fibromyalgia in a group-based exergame protocol that focused on improving mobility, coordination, postural control, flexibility, aerobic fitness, and strength. The activities were effective in helping women with fibromyalgia improve their physical fitness.

In another study about exergaming, researchers introduced physical activity to fibromyalgia patients through virtual reality. Not only did they receive the benefits of exercise, but the immersive environment of VR helped distract them from pain while they were exergaming. At the end of the eight week study, participants in the control group showed great improvement in areas such as mobility and balance.

Treatments for fibromyalgia and other conditions associated with chronic pain as well as other physical and mental challenges have traditionally consisted of pharmacological options as well as non-pharmacological options like exercise and cognitive-behavioral therapy. However, the opioid epidemic in particular has drawn attention to the fact that we need more non-pharmacological options for pain relief.

Fibromyalgia

Researchers aren’t certain what causes fibromyalgia, but causes could include genetic predisposition, infections, and physical or emotional trauma. There are also theories that irregular activity within the central nervous system could be the instigator. The disorder affects both men and women, but women between the ages of 30 to 50 are more likely to develop the condition.

Symptoms of fibromyalgia include pain, stiff joints and muscles, fatigue, dizziness, memory problems, and sleep issues, among other problems. People with fibromyalgia also frequently experience depression, partly due to the challenge of chronic pain.

Other Conditions that Cause Chronic Pain

There are several conditions that cause chronic pain similar to that experienced by fibromyalgia patients. The top causes include arthritis, lower back injuries, chronic headaches, multiple sclerosis, shingles, and generalized nerve damage (neuropathy). Most of these conditions are also largely treated with medications, but this simply increases the dependence on pharmacologic options and oftentimes the medications don’t completely alleviate pain anyway.

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How Exergames Can Help

Distraction from Pain

One of the greatest obstacles to overcome when helping people deal with chronic disease or pain is simply motivating them to move. This is often challenging when movement produces pain, but immersive VR games and experiences allow patients to focus on something else.

There are VR games for all levels of activity. Some patients might choose VR meditation and relaxation experiences that allow them to simply enjoy the virtual environment. Others might prefer a little more interaction with a single-player game like Beat Saber, where they can slice blocks with a saber at their own pace. It’s extremely satisfying and definitely distracting. Some patients might even choose to participate in more competitive VR games like Echo Arena, where they can either play against others in a virtual arena or simply hang out in a lobby for some social interaction. Regardless of what a person chooses, there are plenty of options for immersive VR that enable them to forget about the pain for a while. It’s also speculated that the pain-relieving effects last for a while after the person takes off the headset.

Mobility

Joint pain can make it difficult for patients to move normally, limiting their mobility. The problem is that lack of movement then exacerbates the problem, limiting mobility even further. If patients can be distracted from the pain long enough to move in exergames, they can alleviate stiff joints and muscles.

Even with simple VR games where the patient is doing some simple activity like fishing, they’re still moving. There are also therapy programs specifically designed to help patients with specific areas of fitness such as VRHealth’s Balloon Blast, a VR game that helps with upper extremity and shoulder rehabilitation.

Coordination and Posture

Many patients who suffer from chronic pain have poor coordination and posture. Frequently they also suffer with balance issues or vertigo. This is particularly common in patients with fibromyalgia, with dizziness affecting nearly 75 percent of people diagnosed with the disorder, according to a study in Clinical Rheumatology.

Dizziness affects coordination and posture, which then can lead to falls and injuries so this is an important issue to address. When patients exergame, it helps strengthen their core muscles, which ultimately leads to stronger muscles, ligaments, and tendons in the center of their body. This is one of the best ways to reestablish coordination and posture.

It should be noted that patients who exergame with virtual reality should consider playing seated. This will enable them to build the core muscles, improve aerobic ability, and reap all the benefits of physical activity in VR in a safe manner.

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Social Contact

People who suffer with chronic disease need a support system. One of the challenges faced by patients and caregivers alike is that people who suffer with chronic pain frequently begin to withdraw from social activities. Sometimes it’s just easier to stay at home and deal with the pain in silence. The problem is that this can lead to feelings of despair, loneliness, anger, and anxiety.

Virtual reality gaming enables patients to enter social environments without leaving their home. This is a step in the right direction because VR is immersive. When these people talk with others in multiplayer games, there’s a sense of connection. Perhaps just as importantly, the time they spend making friends and playing multiplayer games is time they’re not focused on their pain so it also means they’re moving their bodies.

Future of Exergaming

Companies that are investing in virtual reality understand how the technology can positively affect other fields such as healthcare and potentially benefit countless people as we integrate the tech into various areas of society.

Both HTC Vive and Oculus, two of the biggest names in the industry, have invested in both gaming and healthcare. Also, late last year it was announced that Oculus had partnered with VRHealth, an Israeli health tech company based in Boston that offers immersive applications to enable cognitive training, motor assessments, and pain management.

We know exergaming works to improve physical fitness and studies continue to support the fact that virtual reality can help people manage pain. Virtual reality is just now beginning to pick up a steady pace and become more appealing to the average consumer. Thanks to products like the Oculus Quest and the Vive Enterprise, patients and healthcare workers have access to standalone headsets that can be used to play games, take virtual tours, or participate in meditation sessions.

With exergaming, patients can experience the benefits of pain relief as well as physical activity. This is a winning combination that certainly could change the lives of countless people as we begin to change the way we way we treat patients with chronic debilitating conditions.


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