Uncomfortable After Eating? Step Into a Virtual World for Help

Damian McNamara, MA

November 02, 2022

People with functional dyspepsia – also known as indigestion – often have belly pain, nausea, lots of belching, and other GI symptoms after eating.

Technology to the rescue? A three-dimensional, immersive experience using a virtual reality headset for about 20 minutes a day for 2 weeks significantly improved symptoms and quality of life for people with indigestion, compared to a control group, a new study reveals.

"We thought that functional dyspepsia may be particularly well-suited to benefit from VR therapy," says lead study investigator David Cangemi, MD, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL. "Our study suggests that VR may be an effective and safe new treatment."

Although VR improved symptoms of indigestion, researchers still do not know exactly how it works. There are some theories: Immersion in a different world distracts people from belly pain. VR also could change the signals sent between the brain and the gut, thereby easing discomfort and pain, Cangemi says.

The study was presented at the American College of Gastroenterology 2022 annual meeting in Charlotte, NC. The research won an award for Excellence in Clinical Research.

Seeing More Medical Uses for VR

There has been more interest in medical uses for VR in recent years. Virtual reality reduced symptoms of acute and chronic pain in different clinical settings, for example, Cangemi says.

Functional dyspepsia affects about 10% of the population. Some people report fewer symptoms after having cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of talk therapy, but it can be costly, and access to it is limited. Also, there are no FDA-approved medications specifically for dyspepsia. Some people try to manage symptoms with over-the-counter drugs such as Prilosec, Nexium, or Prevacid or with prescription Lyrica, an anti-seizure medication also used to treat pain.

But these agents can cause side effects, Cangemi says. "Therefore, novel safe and effective treatment options for functional dyspepsia are greatly needed."

In the first study to look at VR for treating indigestion, the researchers randomly assigned 27 people to virtual reality and 10 others to a control group. People in the treatment group could choose an active, passive, or guided virtual reality experience, while people in the control group watched two-dimensional nature videos.

People used the VR headset a little more than once a day for an average of 23 minutes per day. Average age of the people in the study was about 45 years, and 81% were women.

People filled out questionnaires to report pain and quality of life at the beginning of the study and to track any changes at week 1 and week 2. Although symptoms got less severe in both groups at 2 weeks, people in the VR group improved significantly more on the standard symptom severity scale.

Similarly, quality of life scores improved for all people in the study by 2 weeks, but the treatment group reported greater improvements on a quality-of-life measurement.

A total 17 people, including 11 in the VR group, reported adverse effects, although none were considered serious. One person in the VR group withdrew from the study because of migraines.

Limits of the study include a small number of participants and its short, 2-week duration. The researchers plan to study VR in a more people with functional dyspepsia and for a longer time. They would also like to compare improvements between VR and medications taken to ease symptoms and/or determine if combining the technology and the medicines results in even greater improvements.

"Very Exciting" Study

"Because we don't have a lot of options, it's very exciting to have a new potential treatment," says Samir Shah, MD, chief of gastroenterology at the Miriam Hospital in Providence, RI, who was not affiliated with the study.

"Not everyone can access cognitive behavioral therapy with the cost," he says. "If virtual reality is low-cost and accessible to people, it's another tool that we'd love to have in our toolbox to help our patients with functional dyspepsia."

Asked about the cost of VR technology, Shah pointed out that many smartphones can be outfitted with a low-cost device to transform them into 3D virtual reality devices.

Future studies with larger numbers are warranted, says Shah, who is also the president of the American College of Gastroenterology and a clinical professor of medicine at Brown University.


David Cangemi, MD, gastroenterologist, Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville, FL.

Samir Shah, MD, president, American College of Gastroenterology; chief of gastroenterology, Miriam Hospital, Providence, RI; clinical professor of medicine, Brown University.

American College of Gastroenterology annual meeting, Abstract 3.


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