They say sitting all day at a desk can kill you. From where I sit today, desk jobs are certainly contributing to a rise in chronic neck and back issues. The aches and pains associated with labor jobs have infiltrated the more sedentary jobs thanks to longer work hours in unsupportive furniture and changes to how we use our bodies operating on computers all day.
My workplace injury occurred when my employer brought in furniture that wasn’t height-adjustable and felt like it was built for a third grader. For 15 months, I worked with a desk and chair that wasn’t ergonomic, leaving me with severe carpal tunnel in both wrists and a double crush syndrome diagnosis. When there is compression of the median nerve in the wrist (carpal tunnel), as well as compression of the 6th or 7th cervical nerve in the neck (some fibers of the median nerve come from the 6th and 7th cervical nerves), the overlapping symptoms are called “double crush syndrome.” Needless to say, I had to take leave to treat both my neck and my wrists.
I was offered the opportunity to participate in a functional restoration program that incorporated virtual reality as an adjunct to other components of chronic pain management. The three-week experience involved a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, yoga, acupuncture and physical therapy as well.
Virtual reality (VR) isn’t something I expected to use in my lifetime really, especially for my health. I’ll admit I was skeptical about the experience but also intrigued by this “new age approach.” I also didn’t expect the experience to teach me much about myself, but I walked away with an understanding of how chronic pain works in my body and my tendency to suffer in silence. VR got me moving more and in turn, made it easier for me to talk about how regular my pain is.
Each week, I gradually worked through the VR modules in the Karuna Virtual Embodiment Training™ platform to increase my mobility. Karuna is designed to help you overcome the fear of movement that develops from chronic pain. The brain associates a certain movement with the pain and forms pathways in the brain that basically automate and increase the sensitivity of that response. In my case, the pathways my brain developed had associated neck and arm movements with pain, which discouraged me from performing everyday tasks that required moving these parts of my body. To help me perceive these movements as non-threatening and re-circuit my brain, the system had me progress my range of motion over time when performing acts of daily living I would normally do, like play fetch with a dog or reach and grab items off the grocery store shelf. These experiences felt real for two reasons: it had me do things I would normally do instead of siloed PT exercises and it felt like I was doing it in the real setting since the VR is very immersive. This allowed me to build on it session after session. In addition to the activities of daily living, I also engaged in other exercises that would augment my movement in VR. For example, I would see my arms mirrored or my movements being over/under exaggerated in VR. These seemingly simple changes tricked my brain into seeing my body move differently than what was happening out of VR. By seeing my body move differently, I was able to work through some of the fearful movement barriers I had set up in my head and overcome some of my fear.
I felt the VR portion of the program gave me the real-life insight I needed to make progress, and was particularly powerful when coupled with the other elements of the program. I became a champion of the experience for my fellow group members, who could see the euphoria I felt coming out of the VR module. It gave me the chance to do things I previously took for granted and encouraged me to embrace trying new things, much like I’ve had to do in learning to navigate my pain.
This approach is being piloted in clinics around the country. If you suffer from chronic pain in your low back or upper extremities, I encourage you not to be afraid to try out the virtual experience alongside other elements of your treatment plan. You can find a provider in your area here.
John Gallo is 63 years old and lives in San Jose, CA, with his wife. He has been on Worker’s Compensation for 3 years due to his chronic pain but loves to travel with his wife and to spend time with his two adult children.
(Editor’s Note—We welcome first-person patient perspectives on how they address their own pain issues—from challenges with access to medication to alternative therapies—If you would like submit a guest posting for consideration, email us: firstname.lastname@example.org)