Revolutionary in pain management: RelieVR
More than two million people in the Netherlands live with chronic pain. That's more than all cardiovascular and diabetes patients combined. Chronic pain often takes over one’s whole life. The Frisian entrepreneurs Louis Zantema (31) and Margryt Fennema (25) developed an innovative method to give people with chronic pain control back over their life and fight pain effectively. It resulted in RelieVR: a virtual reality game that teaches patients skills so that they can deal with pain better in daily life and improve their quality of life.
Healthcare psychologist Louis Zantema compares pain to a fire alarm. ‘A fire alarm goes off as a warning, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a fire. That’s also how it works in the body. People with chronic pain often have an alarm system that is set too tightly, causing it to go off unnecessarily from time to time. That doesn’t always mean to say an injury.’ As an example, he cites the story of a construction worker who stepped on a nail at a building site. ‘The nail went right through his shoe. In great agony, the man went to the hospital where his shoe was cut open. The doctors then saw that the nail was between his toes, so it hadn’t gone through at all. But because his brain had registered something that is supposed to hurt a lot, he felt it.’
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Tuning the alarm system better
Normally will pain disappear again. If someone hits his thumb with a hammer, it will automatically fade away after a while. For people with chronic pain, the pain stays. Months, years, and sometimes even a lifetime. ‘Life is completely adapted to it. Many people sleep badly, can’t work anymore or can’t do without pain medication’, Louis explains. As a healthcare psychologist, Louis sees many people with these complaints. ‘For RelieVR, I explained during conversations with patients what pain is, what it does and what influence the brain has on it. I gave people anchors to make the pain more bearable, but noticed that there was often too little time or capacity to really follow it through.’
During her graduation, Margryt came across technology in healthcare. She found it so interesting that she decided to follow the master’s programme ‘Digital innovation in Healthcare’ at the NHL Stenden. She subsequently met Louis In 2017, who was working as a psychologist at the Leeuwarden Medical Centre. Together they came up with the idea of RelieVR at the end of 2017.
Journey through the body
‘The information Louis gave to patients was very valuable, only patients found it difficult to do anything with it at home. In the end, together with the patient, we came up with the idea of VR glasses with a game’, explains Margryt. In the game the user takes a journey through one’s own body. ‘People play a game, but at the same time they also receive information and learn skills in a playful way to control the pain better in daily life.’ The collaboration with patients was central to the product development – which images, colours and music suit the pain best? The VR glasses trigger the emotional brain. ‘It’s extraordinary, because even though your rational brain knows that the world in VR is not real and that you are playing a game, your emotional brain thinks it is real. So, whether you want it or not, the game influences the pain in a positive way’, Louis adds.
Meanwhile, it has already yielded good results, and the pair have won the Northern Netherlands preliminary round of the National Care Innovation Prize. ‘But it’s ultimately about the patients and what they think of it. The results are promising: many patients sleep better, take less medication and are much more active again, and that’s after just a few weeks of practice,’ Louis explains. ‘That’s great to hear. That’s what we’re doing it for.’
Practicing with the app
The two young entrepreneurs want to continue testing this year in collaboration with various care institutions, and plan to roll out their game in August 2019. ‘Since only a small percentage of people with chronic pain complaints are undergoing treatment, we want to ensure that people who are not undergoing treatment will also be able to use our game in the future. By using a VR app on their phone, for example.’
A solid company has now been set up, but in the run-up to this stage Margryt and Louis followed the VentureLab North programme in Groningen. ‘Creating business plans, making contacts, raising capital; we learned a lot from them through their programme and through the extra training courses. And that gave us a lot of confidence.’ And indeed, the young entrepreneurs can be very proud of themselves. Something which started as an idea has now grown into a thriving company. Alongside Margryt and Louis, there are now a further three programmers and three other employees. ‘That’s so cool!’ Margryt says nodding enthusiastically. ‘All stemming from the same passion: helping people with chronic pain. Because that’s what we’re doing it for!’