A Virtual Refuge From Real Pain
Dec. 11, 2014 -- Luke Moore spent 3 weeks in the burn unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, WA, while he recovered from second- and third-degree burns on his left leg. He had fallen asleep too close to the fire on a September camping trip in the Wenatchee National Forest.
For Moore, as for all burn patients, the reality of treatment can be more painful than the burn itself. Even morphine is often not enough.
Because of that, some researchers have turned to virtual reality to help patients like Moore control their pain.
The 25-year-old spent many of his treatment sessions wearing headgear covering his eyes and ears that put him in a snowy, Arctic wonderland. While health care workers cleaned his wounds and stretched his tender skin, Moore threw snowballs to music and floated along a river through a canyon with penguins, woolly mammoths, flying fish, and snowmen.
He was part of an experiment that tested the ability of SnowWorld, a virtual reality game, to distract people from burn-care pain.
“It takes a big chunk of the pain off your mind,” Moore says. “For the last session, I even did it without pain medicine. It’s definitely worse without the game.”
SnowWorld is one of a handful of computer games aimed at helping users control or ignore pain. The games mostly target temporary pain, or discomfort and anxiety, during procedures, such as dental and urology ones. But research is expanding into ongoing, chronic pain as well. The games are part of the larger market of brain-training games, or neurogames, that promise a number of benefits, most commonly to improve certain mental skills.
Although research has supported the benefits of virtual reality for more than a decade, the video games remain in experimental settings, mostly because the headgear they require is expensive and cumbersome. That could soon change. Samsung, Sony, newcomer DeepStream VR, and Oculus -- which was just bought by Facebook -- are all developing more practical, lower-cost viewers for commercial sale, which could make virtual reality widely available in health care facilities in the near future.