Virtual reality obviously has its uses for entertainment, but that doesn’t mean we should limit it to only passing the time in the comfort of our homes.
Instead, the medical community has been attempting to use VR for for years now in a variety of ways. We’re looking at using it to better train medical students, treat patients with phobias and anxiety disorders, and even help stroke victims train and regain lost motor function.
Now, researchers and hospitals are also looking at VR as a sort of mild painkiller alternative. In situations like changing dressing on a wound, placing an IV, or even taking blood from a child, a painkiller is wholly unnecessary, even if the process itself is going to hurt. For this, VR could help distract a patient and reduce anxiety
A study last year by the Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre, involving 100 hospitalized patients, found a 24 percent drop in pain scores for those that watched calming videos on a VR headset during minor procedures. Another 50 patients who watched a nature video on standard displays nearby experienced only a 13.2 percent reduction in pain.
According to Brennan Spiegel, director of health services research at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, researchers are still not exactly sure why VR works so effectively. “The brain is so complex that it’s hard to tease out precisely how something like virtual reality is working,” Spiegel told CNET. What seems to be happening though, is that the immersiveness of VR makes it easier to distract a patient. When you’re surrounded by another world, something that’s lying to your sense of sight and sound, it likely gets easier to externalize and ignore the sense of pain coming from “beyond” that environment.
Basically, your brain is so busy processing the sights and sounds in VR that it can fail to process the pain you’re feeling to some extent.
In the Cedars-Sinai study, the patients are outfitted with Samsung Gear VR headsets, and can choose from games to play or foreign locations to explore. The studies will have to continue, but the technology looks promising, and this research institute is only the latest to notice this.
Not only would it make minor procedures easier, it could also help in post-surgery situations. Particularly in the US, patients undergoing orthopedic surgery are often placed on opioids like morphine or methadone. Unfortunately, these are highly addictive substances (Heroin is an opioid, except it’s illegal), and patients often get hooked on them long after their surgery. Instead, Using a mix of milder painkillers and VR therapy could instead help post-surgery patients deal with the pain without the dangers of administering opioids.
After all, in another similar study recently by AppliedVR, the team noticed a 52 percent reduction in pain in patients that used VR. That’s about on par with the effects of taking opioids. Even if someone would prefer the harder stuff, being able to offer a lighter, healthier alternative to patients is always a good idea.
But mainly, doctors want to be able to treat their patients in the log run. Spiegel believes that using VR therapy to ignore pain could “train” patients to call on this technique even when they’re without a headset.