Virtual Reality Could Be Used as a Painkiller

March 16, 2016 | Elizabeth Knowles

Woman using a samsung VR headset at SXSW
Photo credit: Nan Palmero/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

From the dentist’s office to the burn unit.

Pain, although not pleasant, serves a useful function. It warns us to slow down or stop doing whatever we’re doing. It tries to protect our body from us and keep us safe. However, there are cases when you feel pain even though there is nothing you can do to stop it.

Recently, researchers have started turning to Virtual Reality (VR) as a means of relieving pain.

“Cognitive distraction during a painful experience takes some of the conscious attention away from the painful stimulus,” says Dr. Sam Sharar, an anesthesiologist at University of Washington, according to KQED.

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Firsthand Technology, a virtual reality software company based in Seattle, developed a game called SnowWorld back in the early 2000s that was used as a pain-relief strategy during wound care for burn victims.

“SnowWorld transports the patient through an icy canyon filled with snowball hurling snowmen, flocks of squawking penguins, woolly mammoths and other surprises. Patients are drawn in, throwing their own snowballs as they fly through the gently falling snow. Often they become so engaged, they don't realize their procedure is already over!” say researchers on Firsthand Technology’s website.

More recently, the company, now known as DeepStream VR, has developed a new game called Cool! Its purpose is to provide pain relief during medical procedures like a trip to the dentist.

A study entitled “Clinical use of virtual reality distraction system to reduce anxiety and pain in dental procedures.” was recently published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking. It looked at how virtual reality can affect patients’ anxiety, pain and physiology.

It turns out that being distracted enough can actually reduce a patient’s perception of pain and level of anxiety. “Attention given to pain often determines not only the level of pain being reported, but also the distress levels. By encouraging a patient to focus his/her attention on other thoughts, less attention is available for the pain,” reports the study.

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Although the study only looked at five cases, it found that virtual reality is more effective than watching a movie or deep breathing because it simulates sights, sounds, and motions to provide an immersive experience.

Data was collected through surveys conducted before and after the dental visit as well as the Procomp+ biofeedback device that measured “electromyogram (EMG), temperature, galvanic skin response (GSH), electroencephalogram (EEG), heart rate variability, heart rate, and respiration rate” through seven sensors. For each patient, the treatment was performed for five minutes without the VR distraction and for five minutes with it.

“The VEs included relaxing nature worlds where the patients could navigate through beaches, forest, mountains, and other pleasant areas. The patients self-navigated to provide a further sense of control,” according to the study.

Narcotics, typically used for pain relief in medical situations, are unfortunately known to decline in effectiveness when used repeatedly, which can lead to dosage escalation and dependence. VR could provide a safe alternative, or at least be used in combination with opioids, in an endless number of scenarios.

I hope my dentist gets on the bandwagon soon!

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