Celine Tien is rethinking pain management amid the opioid epidemic

Celine Tien said it was a “no-brainer” to come up with the Flowly app, which uses virtual reality experiences and biofeedback to help people better regulate chronic pain and anxiety.

Tien grew up surrounded by people who dealt with chronic pain and knew firsthand that there were very few accessible effective solutions — which is unfortunate, given that one in five adults suffer from chronic pain, according to the CDC.

“Pain is really a bio-psycho-social disease, which means you have physical pain, psychological pain, even feelings of social isolation that are incredibly crucial and impacts somebody with chronic pains,” Tien explained to In The Know. “We don’t talk about the underlying chronic pain epidemic that fueled the usage and the distribution of opioids.”

Opioid prescriptions started increasing in the 1990s. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), from 1999 to 2019, nearly 500,000 Americans have died from an opioid-related overdose.

“Using opiates who is, is definitely helpful for many people in the chronic pain and acute pain spectrum, so we would never say it’s not a solution or tool that people should use,” Tien clarified. “However, I think most people with chronic pain can relate that opioids don’t address the whole issue.”

Tien isn’t a doctor — she’s only 25 and, in fact, she does recommend that users consult their doctor before introducing any kind of new tool or routine into their daily lives. But Tien is very well-versed in interactive technology and strategy. While working at Dreamworks she realized that virtual reality (VR) and biofeedback could be used to manage pain.

“Current pain management tools are very fragmented,” she said. “You need to have access to a tool and a solution that is able to help you on a daily basis because chronic pain requires daily management.”

The Flowly app, which launched in 2020, allows users to go into a calming VR environment — the beach, somewhere beneath the Aurora lights — while a sensor collects real-time bio data, like their heart rate.

“We can teach them how to actually control their body and control their nervous system so that they can bring their body from a state of fight or flight mode into parasympathetic, which is their rest and recovery mode,” she said.

Another benefit of Flowly is that it answers the concern of accessibility. Those with chronic pain can experience pain at any time and can’t always make it to a hospital. Plus, Tien pointed out that she and her co-founder are women of color and grew up witnessing a lot of their East Asian relatives showing an aversion to taking pain medication.

“When we built Flowly, a big guiding light for us was accessibility,” she said. “We think that there’s a big potential to really introduce alternative pain management to communities already that are seeking that type of tool and that are not reliant on medication.”

Tien hopes that Flowly becomes a solution to the millions of people suffering. As she mentioned before, pain is a bio-psycho-social disease, and the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped the situation.

“I think more than ever, we saw how important it was to give people the tools, but also to educate them and talk about pain management in this past year,” Tien said.

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