Forget Opioids, Virtual Reality Could Be the Future of Pain Management

Keerthi Vedantam

Keerthi Vedantam is a bioscience reporter at dot.LA. She cut her teeth covering everything from cloud computing to 5G in San Francisco and Seattle. Before she covered tech, Keerthi reported on tribal lands and congressional policy in Washington, D.C. Connect with her on Twitter, Clubhouse (@keerthivedantam) or Signal at 408-470-0776.

Forget Opioids, Virtual Reality Could Be the Future of Pain Management

It's hard to overstate just how painful a process treating burn victims is – for burn victims, air itself is excruciatingly painful. They have to undergo weeks of undressing wounds, cleaning the tender skin of debris, slathering the area with ointment, and redressing it with new bandages, and it is considered one of the most physically painful treatments in medicine. To combat this, most patients rely on consistent and heavy opioid usage.


But in 2008, University of Washington researchers published the first study of its kind using virtual reality (VR) to mitigate the use of the highly-addictive drugs. The researchers replaced the clinical hospital setting with a computer-generated snowtopia where patients could throw snowballs with penguins and snowmen through a VR headset as doctors washed the treatment area. It worked, and the study concluded that VR could replace part of an opioid dose.

A decade later, VR medicine has taken off, spawning a clutch of companies and a new field of study for what is considered one of the most promising and powerful noninvasive tools to treat pain. It's now a growing part of an $885.7 million VR health care industry.

In the eyes of Jeffrey I. Gold, a pain management doctor at the Children's Hospital Los Angeles, it's the future of medicine, as virtual reality has the potential of eliminating the need for billions of dollars worth of drugs.

If Gold is right, as researchers are increasingly finding, this could have a ripple effect across the healthcare industry eventually lowering health care costs as patients rely less on drugs to offset pain.

"That's really where VR needs to go, is into the place where you can start reducing the need for certain types of medicines that may have side effects." Gold said.

How VR Works to Mitigate Pain

Conventional pain management techniques rely on distractions like blowing bubbles with younger patients or administering pain relievers or sedation. Unlike those, VR has the unique ability to manipulate how the brain processes pain by engaging the senses with powerful immersive experiences.

Gold published a study looking at how VR impacted pain in children. Researchers gave children aged 12 to 17 who were getting blood drawn VR headsets and instructed them to play a game made specifically to soothe pain. Once they put on the set, health care workers drew blood.

They then compared the experience to children who were given traditional distraction methods like bubbles or reading a book, and soothing techniques.

The study found children who used VR during their procedures felt less pain and anxiety than children who didn't.

"People always talk about, 'you're just distracting the kid like, 'hey, look over here'.' Well, that's not what we're doing," Gold said. "It's a little bit more involved with regards to immersion, presence, something we call cognitive load."

One way to think about pain is like an "alarm" the brain sets off. VR directs the brain to set off more relaxing "sounds" in the form of a visual and audible world that forces the senses to experience something else. This drowns out that "alarm" created by the pain. The brain, effectively, does not register the needle placement as as painful as it would be without VR.

The study confirmed what researchers have been seeing for years. But what excited Gold was its potential for children: By making procedures more engaging and less painful, children with chronic conditions may become less fearful about treating their condition, he said.

"For a child to have a positive experience on a routine procedure, that can be a game changer for that kid."

Other researchers looking at the use of VR are finding that not only does the technology engage the patient's senses, but in some cases it can act as a support network, much like a family. Another study by Cedars-Sinai Los Angeles used VR to assist women going into labor with painful contractions. Researchers put a headset on women in labor showing them soothing animated scenes of nature that pulsated, almost as if the elements were breathing. A calm voice used words of encouragement to help the mother through contractions.

Women who used the VR reported lower levels of pain and anxiety, much like the children.

"What I think was so impactful about this particular intervention, actually, is that what they were hearing was very much the same things ... you might hear from a doula" said Dr. Melissa Wong, maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai Los Angeles who led the study.

'A Pharmacy of VR'

Wong's study at Cedars-Sinai indicated VR could be an alternative to epidurals or nitrous oxide – two common pain management solutions used during labor. But, even more than that, it pointed to a slew of history that shows pain is not just an acute or chronic sensation in the body that causes your brain to raise alarm, it's also the environment around you.

Wong said one of the strongest indicators of whether or not patients ask for epidurals during labor is whether or not they have a birth support person in the form of a partner, family member or doula. Patients that don't are more likely to need an epidural.

"So it's suggesting, again, that [pain] is sort of the entire way in which everything is being approached, rather than just literally the pain fibers," said Wong.

In other words, pain isn't simply a feeling. It is also a patient's support system, surroundings and mental fitness. By taking patients out of a clinical hospital setting of linoleum floors and wheeling carts and into a magical virtual world that has its own soundscapes and therapeutic guides, their pain can appear to be far less than what it might be.

Brennan Spiegel, a doctor at Cedars-Sinai Los Angeles who oversees virtual reality programs, coined "a pharmacy of VR" -- the idea that VR therapies should be created to help specific situations, like going through labor, dressing a burn wound, undergoing chemotherapy or having an anxiety attack.

But the industry is still young and many of the devices have yet to gain full Food and Drug Administration approval. Still, there's growing demand.

Companies Are Getting Involved

Companies like seven-year-old Alameda-based KindVR are using virtual reality programs to soothe pediatric patients before an MRI and calm them before an operation. XRHealth, a five-year-old company based in Massachusetts, offers a host of applications designed to treat physical immobility and mental health.

And the six-year-old Los Angeles-based AppliedVR developed a suite of VR-based "video games" meant to soothe anxiety for veterans and treat acute pain for people giving birth and burn victims. The company has raised around $34 million to date, the most any startup in the chronic pain market has raised, and valued at over $67 million, according to Pitchbook.

Following the idea of a 'pharmacy for VR', AppliedVR has two opioid-sparing treatments -- one for patients to use to help with acute pain, and one for chronic pain. The effects of chronic pain are often long lasting stress and a feat of moving, which is why the company incorporates cognitive behavioral therapy into the treatment.

Their chronic pain product is EaseVRx, a VR device used in an eight-week program that takes patients through different educational and training modules to explain to them how stress can affect pain, how they can avoid stress, and how to utilize breathing and acceptance-based therapy to reduce pain long after taking off the VR headset.

Laura Garcia, director of research, design and product innovation at AppliedVR said the company found that patients are able to utilize the benefits of VR up to six months after taking off the headset.

"While you're in the headset, you're able to learn your skill sets and change your brain so that you're able to cope with the pain differently," she said. "So imagine having a pill that gives you benefits and relieves [pain] for the time that you use the pill for, but also six months after."

Correction: An earlier version of this misidentified EaseVRx and misstated the length of its VR training program.

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🤫 The Secret to Staying Fit at Your Desk: 6 Essential Under-Desk Exercise Machines

Health experts are sounding the alarm: our sedentary jobs are slowly killing us, yet we can't abandon our desks if we want to keep the lights on. It feels like we're caught between a rock and a hard place. Enter under-desk exercise machines – the overlooked heroes (albeit kind of goofy looking) of the modern workspace. These devices let tech professionals stay active, enhance their health, and increase their productivity, all without stepping away from their screens. Here are 6 fantastic options that will enhance the way you work and workout simultaneously.

DeskCycle Under Desk Bike Pedal Exerciser

This bike has nearly ten thousand five-star reviews on amazon. It works with nearly any desk/chair setup. It is quiet, sturdy and allows up to 40 pounds of resistance. If you are looking for an under-desk bike this is a fantastic option.

Type: Under-Desk Bike

Price: $180 - $200


Sunny Health & Fitness Dual Function Under Desk Pedal Exerciser

This under-desk bike is extremely quiet due to the magnetic resistance making it an ideal option if you work in a shared space. It doesn’t slip, has eight levels of resistance, and the option to work legs and arms. It’s about half the price of the DeskCycle bike making it a solid mid-range option for those looking to increase their daily activity.

Type: Under-Desk Bike

Price: $100 - $110


Sunny Health & Fitness Sitting Under Desk Elliptical

This under-desk elliptical comes in multiple colors if you really want to underscore that you are a quirky individual, in case an under-desk elliptical isn’t enough. This model is a bit heavy (very sturdy), has eight different resistance levels, and has more than nine thousand 5-star reviews.

Type: Under-Desk Elliptical

Price: $120 - $230


DeskCycle Ellipse Leg Exerciser

This under-desk elliptical is another great option. It is a bit pricey but it’s quiet, well-made and has eight resistance levels. It also syncs with your apple watch or fitbit which is a very large perk for those office-wide “step” challenges. Get ready to win.

Type: Under-Desk Elliptical

Price: $220 - $230


Daeyegim Quiet LED Remote Treadmill

If you have a standing desk and are looking to walk and work this is a fantastic option. This walking-only treadmill allows you to walk between 0.5 to 5 mph (or jog unless you have the stride length of an NBA forward). It is very quiet, which is perfect if you want to use it near others or during a meeting. You can’t change the incline or fold it in half but it is great for simply getting in some extra steps during the work day.

Type: Under-Desk Treadmill

Price: $220 - $230


Sunny Health & Fitness Foldable Manual Treadmill

This under-desk treadmill isn’t the most premium model but it is affordable and has an impressive array of features. It is a manual treadmill meaning it doesn’t need to be plugged in; it is foldable and offers an incline up to 13%. I personally can’t imagine working and walking up a 13% incline but if that sounds like your cup of tea, then I truly respect the hustle.

Type: Under-Desk Treadmill

Price: $150 - $200




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🤠Musk Picks Texas and 🔥Tinder AI Picks Your Profile Pictures

🔦 Spotlight

Tinder is altering dating profile creation with its new AI-powered Photo Selector feature, designed to help users choose their most appealing dating profile pictures. This innovative tool employs facial recognition technology to curate a set of up to 10 photos from the user's device, streamlining the often time-consuming process of profile setup. To use the feature, users simply take a selfie within the Tinder app and grant access to their camera roll. The AI then analyzes the photos based on factors like lighting and composition, drawing from Tinder's research on what makes an effective profile picture.

The selection process occurs entirely on the user's device, ensuring privacy and data security. Tinder doesn't collect or store any biometric data or photos beyond those chosen for the profile, and the facial recognition data is deleted once the user exits the feature. This new tool addresses a common pain point for users, as Tinder's research shows that young singles typically spend about 25 to 33 minutes selecting a profile picture. By automating this process, Tinder aims to reduce profile creation time and allow users to focus more on making meaningful connections.

In wholly unrelated news, Elon Musk has announced plans to relocate the headquarters of X (formerly Twitter) and SpaceX from California to Texas. SpaceX will move from Hawthorne to Starbase, while X will shift from San Francisco to Austin. Musk cited concerns about aggressive drug users near X's current headquarters and a new California law regarding gender identity notification in schools as reasons for the move. This decision follows Musk's previous relocation of Tesla's headquarters to Texas in 2021.

🤝 Venture Deals

LA Companies

LA Venture Funds

LA Exits

  • Penguin Random House agreed to acquire comic book publisher Boom! Studios from backers like Walt Disney Co. - learn more

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Top LA Accelerators that Entrepreneurs Should Know About

Los Angeles, has a thriving startup ecosystem with numerous accelerators, incubators, and programs designed to support and nurture new businesses. These programs provide a range of services, including funding, mentorship, workspace, networking opportunities, and strategic guidance to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas and scale their companies.


Techstars Los Angeles

Techstars is a global outfit with a chapter in Los Angeles that opened in 2017. It prioritizes local companies but will fund some firms based outside of LA.

Location: Culver City

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: StokedPlastic, Zeno Power


Grid110

Grid110 offers no-cost, no-equity programs for entrepreneurs in Los Angeles, including a 12-week Residency accelerator for early-stage startups, an Idea to Launch Bootcamp for pre-launch entrepreneurs, and specialized programs like the PledgeLA Founders Fund and Friends & Family program, all aimed at providing essential skills, resources, and support to help founders develop and grow their businesses.

Location: DTLA

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: Casetify, Flavors From Afar


Idealab

Idealab is a renowned startup studio and incubator based in Pasadena, California. Founded in 1996 by entrepreneur Bill Gross, Idealab has a long history of nurturing innovative technology companies, with over 150 startups launched and 45 successful IPOs and acquisitions, including notable successes like Coinbase and Tenor.

Location: Pasadena

Type of Funding: Stage agnostic

Focus: Industry Agnostic, AI/Robotics, Consumer, Clean Energy

Notable Past Companies: Lumin, Coinbase, Tenor


Plug In South LA

Plug In South LA is a tech accelerator program focused on supporting and empowering Black and Latinx entrepreneurs in the Los Angeles area. The 12-week intensive program provides early-stage founders with mentorship, workshops, strategic guidance, potential pilot partnerships, grant funding, and networking opportunities to help them scale their businesses and secure investment.

Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, seed

Focus: Industry Agnostic, Connection to South LA and related communities

Notable Past Companies: ChargerHelp, Peadbo


Cedars-Sinai Accelerator

The Cedars-Sinai Accelerator is a three-month program based in Los Angeles that provides healthcare startups with $100,000 in funding, mentorship from over 300 leading clinicians and executives, and access to Cedars-Sinai's clinical expertise and resources. The program aims to transform healthcare quality, efficiency, and care delivery by helping entrepreneurs bring their innovative technology products to market, offering participants dedicated office space, exposure to a broad network of healthcare entrepreneurs and investors, and the opportunity to pitch their companies at a Demo Day.

Location: West Hollywood

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage, convertible note

Focus: Healthcare, Device, Life Sciences

Notable Past Companies: Regard, Hawthorne Effect


MedTech Innovator

MedTech Innovator is the world's largest accelerator for medical technology companies, based in Los Angeles, offering a four-month program that provides selected startups with unparalleled access to industry leaders, investors, and resources without taking equity. The accelerator culminates in showcase events and competitions where participating companies can win substantial non-dilutive funding, with the program having a strong track record of helping startups secure FDA approvals and significant follow-on funding.

Location: Westwood

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage

Focus: Health Care, Health Diagnostics, Medical Device

Notable Past Companies: Zeto, Genetesis


KidsX

The KidsX Accelerator in Los Angeles is a 10-week program that supports early-stage digital health companies focused on pediatric care, providing mentorship, resources, and access to a network of children's hospitals to help startups validate product-market fit and scale their solutions. The accelerator uses a reverse pitch model, where participating hospitals identify focus areas and work closely with selected startups to develop and pilot digital health solutions that address specific pediatric needs.

Location: East Hollywood

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, seed, early stage

Focus: Pediatric Health Care Innovation

Notable Past Companies: Smileyscope, Zocalo Health


Disney Accelerator

Disney Accelerator is a startup accelerator that provides early-stage companies in the consumer media, entertainment and technology sectors with mentorship, guidance, and investment from Disney executives. The program, now in its 10th year, aims to foster collaborations and partnerships between innovative technology companies and The Walt Disney Company to help them accelerate their growth and bring new experiences to Disney audiences.

Location: Burbank

Type of Funding: Growth stage

Focus: Technology and entertainment

Notable Past Companies: Epic Games, BRIT + CO, CAMP


Techstars Space Accelerator

Techstars Space Accelerator is a startup accelerator program focused on advancing the next generation of space technology companies. The three-month mentorship-driven program brings together founders from across the globe to work on big ideas in aerospace, including rapid launch services, precision-based imaging, operating systems for complex robotics, in-space servicing, and thermal protection.

Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Growth stage

Focus: Aerospace

Notable Past Companies: Pixxel, Morpheus Space



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