Feasibility and Safety of a Virtual Reality Dodgeball Intervention for Chronic Low Back Pain

Whereas the fear-avoidance model of chronic low back pain (CLBP) posits a generic avoidance of movement that is perceived as threatening, we have repeatedly shown that individuals with high fear and CLBP specifically avoid flexion of the lumbar spine. Accordingly, the authors developed a virtual dodgeball intervention designed to elicit graded increases in lumbar spine flexion while reducing expectations of fear and harm by engaging participants in a competitive game that is entertaining and distracting.

They recruited 52 participants (48% female) with CLBP and high fear of movement and randomized them to either a game group (n = 26) or a control group (n = 26). All participants completed a pregame baseline and a follow-up assessment (4-6 days later) of lumbar spine motion and expectations of pain and harm during standardized reaches to high (easier), middle, and low (hardest to reach) targets. For 3 consecutive days, participants in the game group completed 15 minutes of virtual dodgeball between baseline and follow-up.

For the standardized reaching tests, there were no significant effects of group on changes in lumbar spine flexion, expected pain, or expected harm. However, virtual dodgeball was effective at increasing lumbar flexion within and across gameplay sessions. Participants reported strong positive endorsement of the game, no increases in medication use, pain, or disability, and no adverse events.

Although these findings indicate that very brief exposure to this game did not translate to significant changes outside the game environment, this was not surprising because graded exposure therapy for fear of movement among individuals with low back pain typically last 8 to 12 sessions. Because of the demonstration of safety, feasibility, and ability to encourage lumbar flexion within gameplay, these findings provide support for a clinical trial wherein the treatment dose is more consistent with traditional graded exposure approaches to CLBP.

This study of a virtual reality dodgeball intervention provides evidence of feasibility, safety, and utility to encourage lumbar spine flexion among individuals with CLBP and high fear of movement.