UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Implementing VR Therapy for Pain Relief

Virtual reality therapy is an emerging treatment method being used at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital to help distract patients from their pain by giving them something more positive to focus on.

While you might associate virtual reality (VR) with entertainment, physicians and researchers have discovered that it also has therapeutic value. UCSF Health is at the forefront of VR therapy and its ability to help children cope with chronic pain. Keep reading to learn how some children in Oakland are cutting back on opioid medications with the help of VR while hospitalized.

Virtual Reality Technologies Offer Therapeutic Benefits

As VR technology improved over the past decade, researchers began to explore its benefits in the healthcare industry. Studies have shown that VR therapy might offer significant benefits when treating burns, cancer, mental health conditions, and chronic pain. The technology is also used to alleviate anxiety and distress during medical procedures.

The rationale behind VR therapy is relatively simple. The human brain has a limited attention span and can only focus on a certain amount of stimulation at one time. VR offers patients an immersive experience that targets their eyes, ears, and other senses. When the brain is focused on VR, it has less capacity to process and feel pain.

While research suggests VR therapy is particularly effective at controlling chronic pain in children, hospitals rarely had access to the expensive advanced technology. A Benioff Children’s Hospital volunteer and game developer, Simon Robertson, decided to develop a VR experience designed with pediatric patients and procedures in mind. His company, KindVR, launched in 2014.

UCSF Health Co-Founds the Engineering for Children’s Health Initiative

Around the same time, UCSF Health, one of the nation’s top research hospitals, realized that many biotech businesses were ignoring the pediatric market. Many investors and startups focus on technology that treats adults, where there is higher demand and potential for profit. Together with a group of Bay Area hospitals and universities, UCSF Health founded the Children’s Health Initiative, which advances pediatric biotech. Pediatric VR therapy was amongst its first pilot research studies.

UCSF Health Is at the Forefront of Pediatric VR Therapy Research

In 2017, UCSF began studying whether VR therapy might help pediatric sickle cell disease patients control their pain. Sickle cell disease is a genetic condition in which abnormal proteins cause red blood cells to become crescent-shaped, sticky, and brittle. These blood cells can stick in blood vessels and on tissues, causing excruciatingly painful blockages. During a sickle cell crisis, patients frequently require hospitalization and opioid medications to control their pain.

UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland has a long history of treating the Bay Area’s sickle cell patients and began offering patients the option of 15-minute VR therapy sessions during a sickle cell crisis in 2017. Before the child undergoes VR therapy, their pain levels are assessed through a series of questions.

When requested, a volunteer from KindVR helps the child use a VR headset that immerses them in an underwater experience. They hear the sound of the water around them and can interact with marine life and explore the sea floor. At the end of the session, a trained professional again gauges the child’s pain level.

While the researchers have not published their final conclusions, the preliminary data seems promising. It appears that VR therapy is improving the children’s pain by 16% and is giving them a medication-free alternative for pain control. While opioids control an average of 30% of a patient’s pain, they carry significant health risks and can cause dependency. In comparison, VR therapy has no identified side effects.

VR therapy is also extremely popular with the hospital’s sickle cell patients. Physicians report that children regularly request VR when receiving care for their sickle cell disease. UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland is now offering similar pilot studies for pediatric cancer and MRI patients.


Bai, N. (2017, February 16). New collaboration launches to advance technology for children’s health. UCSF. Retrieved from https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2017/02/405836/new-collaboration-launches-advance-technology-childrens-health

Li, A., Montaño, Z., Chen, V. J., & Gold, J. I. (2011, March). Virtual reality and pain management: current trends and future directions. NCBI. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3138477/

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Health and Medicine Division; Board on Health Sciences Policy; Committee on Pain Management and Regulatory Strategies to Address Prescription Opioid Abuse; Phillips JK, Ford MA, Bonnie RJ, editors (2018, July 13). Pain Management and the Opioid Epidemic: Balancing Societal and Individual Benefits and Risks of Prescription Opioid Use. NCBI. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK458655/  

UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland (n.d.). Virtual reality (VR) pain relief UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. UCSF. Retrieved from https://www.childrenshospitaloakland.org