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Virtually painless? How technology might soon transform your hospital stay

3 minute read
Man in pain using virtual reality to help heal

Medical researchers and practitioners haven't been far behind sci-fi fans when it comes to exploring the possibilities of virtual reality (VR).

As a surgeon, student doctor or nurse, you can 'operate' in an immersive VR environment where the sights, sounds, lighting and staff are the 'real deal'. You can be treated for fear of spiders and even for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by wearing a headset.

While it makes sense that emotional responses can be affected by virtual spiders and virtual stress, how can VR possibly reduce the physical feeling of pain?

VR and pain management – how did it start?

Tom Furness, a Washington University professor, began looking at VR in the 1960s when he was in the Air Force. One of the spin-off research projects from his work was a headset with a TV tuner and video tapes. While it didn't have widespread consumer appeal, it was popular with dentists who bought it to distract children from their fear of injections, drilling and fillings.

Since the 1990s VR has been used to help people experiencing acute pain. University of Washington researchers and the Harborview Burn Center began collaborating on SnowWorld, a VR game for burn victims featuring snowballs and Paul Simon's song "You Can Call Me Al".

Credit: ScienCentral

Researchers resorted to VR for burn victims because the pain caused by wound care and other treatments was so extreme that normal pain medication didn’t work. They were seeking a solution that helped patients manage pain while not requiring additional medication. The researchers figured that because a patient needs to pay attention to the pain to process the feeling of pain, if they were distracted then they might register the pain less – simply because they noticed it less.

And so, SnowWorld was born. One user describes it as white noise that cancelled out the pain.

With the price of VR dropping, it is now more affordable for both hospitals and patients themselves to invest in VR headsets and software. Companies like startup DeepStream VR are working on systems and therapeutic software to help people with burns as well as other injuries. If you aren't into lobbing snowballs, its cool software features the antics of an otter.

So, what are the advantages of VR?

  • It doesn’t require drugs – this is a pro, both when it comes to cost for patients and for health, because using pain medication in the long term can have serious side effects. It also means patients who aren't suited to taking pain medication can still manage their pain.
  • It can be done at home – pain management may require fewer visits to hospital.
Man in wheelchair being shown virtual reality by a female friend

There are some downsides too

  • While the cost of VR is coming down, it might be a while before we see VR subsidised like other pain management options.
  • It is still largely untested – while immersive games have been around for a long time, there's little evidence about VR's impact on chronic rather than acute pain.

While it might be a while before you get to shoot snowballs after having your tonsils out, the use of VR in health care is certainly science fact, not science fiction. Find out more about surgeons using VR in training in our article First person surgeons: How virtual reality is changing health care.

So apart from throwing snowballs at penguins and igloos and experiencing otter escapades, the challenge now is for the software developers to come up with ideas engaging enough to keep patients pain-free

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