Healthcare Technology Featured Article

September 01, 2016

VR Transports Patients to Painless World

Have you ever gotten so caught up in a moment that you forgot about the troubles in your life? For some people, reading a good book, watching TV or going out at night is enough to make them forgot their worries for awhile and, sometimes, even feels like they’re being transported to a new world. Well, what about people in hospitals, who don’t have the option to go out for a drink with their friends? Patients are often in a lot of pain, and reading or watching TV might not be powerful enough to mentally take them out of their hospital room. Thanks to virtual reality (VR) headsets, that problem is on its way to being solved.

Hospitals are great in that their main purpose is to help patients get better so that they can go about their daily lives as soon as possible. However, being trapped in a small hospital room for days, weeks or even months is incredibly boring. One of the major complaints patients have is that they have nothing to take their minds off the pain they’re feeling. That’s where VR comes in. VR headsets are being used in trial runs to see if they affect the amount of pain patients feel while in the hospital.

For Deona Duke, a 13-year-old girl who recently came out of a medically induced coma after being set on fire due to a bonfire accident, VR made all the difference. To prevent infection, Duke often needed her bandages changed and dead skin scraped away. This can be an incredibly painful process that not even morphine can entirely diminish, and simply reading a book wasn’t going to help take her mind off the pain. The VR headset she was provided with, though, did the job. Instead of concentrating on the painful procedure, Duke was transported to “SnowWorld,” where she was able to spend her time having fun and throwing snowballs at snowmen and igloos. She said, “I’d never heard of it so I was a little surprised,” she said. “When I first tried it, it distracted me from what they were doing so it helped with the pain.”

Duke’s reaction is not surprising, according to Beth Darnall, a clinical associate professor at Stanford Health care’s division of pain medicine. She said, “Pain is our harm alarm and it does a really good job of getting our attention.” She says VR, which Stanford has done some pilot studies on, is a psychological tool, like meditation, that can “calm the nervous system, and that dampens the pain processing.” This conclusion is also supported by Shriners psychologists Hunter Hoffman and Walter Meyer, and similar work done by Dave Patterson at Harborview Burn Center in Seattle. There, patients reported less discomfort thanks to VR. Hoffman also examined magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of patients’ brains, which showed they actually experienced less pain due to the headsets.

Similar experiences can be seen in trials around the U.S. At Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, Ronald Yarbrough had a similar response to his VR experience. He is waiting for a life-saving donor heart in a small, confining hospital room—something the former truck driver is not used to. When asked about his experience, he said, “I was on a lot of pain medication and I’ve been able to whittle that down because I’m not sitting around thinking about it,” said the 54-year-old former truck driver. He intends to buy a VR headset when he’s discharged. “I was very surprised by it. I didn’t have the expectation of it working. When I got into it, I was amazed.”

Granted, there’s a lot more that still needs to be done to perfect VR. More research will need to be conducted in order to ensure that VR is a legitimate form of pain relief, and more patients need to be comfortable with using it. Luckily, cost is not a major issue; with so many companies trying to create the perfect headset, there is a variety to choose from, and costs are going down. Plus, the cost of headsets is tiny compared to the expense of keeping a patient in the hospital. With the right research and procedures in place, VR has the potential to have a significant impact on patients in hospitals. From there, who knows what else it could accomplish?

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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