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    Virtual Reality a Possibility for Reducing Pain during Treatments

    By Jennifer Huddleston, staff writer       

    Two recent studies and another in the works explore the possibility of using virtual reality to reduce pain in patients receiving treatments ranging from wound care to venipuncture.

    “When your kids are playing video games, the kitchen could blow up and they wouldn’t notice,” said Jeffrey I. Gold, a member of the interdisciplinary Comfort, Pain and Palliative Care Program in the department of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. “Why is that? That’s what we are investigating.”

    Gold’s 2006 study of virtual reality during pediatric venipuncture proved that the technique can reduce or eliminate pain. In the study, children were divided in two groups: those given a topical anesthetic and those who played a virtual reality game. The study found that the children who played the virtual reality game did not report a change in pain intensity and were calmer, more cooperative and less anxious than the children who were given the topical anesthetic. The group that did not play the game reported a four-fold increase in pain intensity during the procedure.

    “Research has shown that virtual reality can calm and relax patients to make treatments and processes easier, and require less medications,” Gold said. “There is so much possibility and opportunity for growth. This area of study is really in its infancy.”

    In the summer of 2008 Hunter Hoffman, director of the University of Washington’s Virtual Reality Analgesia Research Center, and other researchers published a report on the effects of using virtual reality during wound care for two patients who had suffered combat-related burn injuries in Iraq.

    The first patient in the study had suffered third-degree burns on 32 percent of his body during a roadside bomb terrorist attack, and the second patient suffered second- and third-degree burns after his humvee was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. [4]

    Both patients reported less pain when distracted by virtual reality. For the first patient, the “time spent thinking about pain” dropped from 100 percent without virtual reality to just 15 percent during virtual reality, and “pain unpleasantness” dropped from “moderate” to “mild.” The patient described wound care as “no fun at all” without virtual reality but as “pretty fun” during virtual reality.

    During virtual reality, the second patient’s “time spent thinking about pain” decreased from 100 percent to 0 percent and “pain unpleasantness” decreased from “severe” to “mild.” The patient’s fun ratings also increased from zero without virtual reality to “extremely fun” during virtual reality.

    While further studies are needed, the current study’s findings show that virtual reality can be effective in “reducing cognitive pain, emotional pain and the sensory component of pain” in soldiers enduring treatment for combat-related burn injuries.

    Now, a virtual reality game called Snow World, created by Hoffman and David Patterson, chief of rehabilitation medicine at the university’s Harborview Burn Center, is being used in a military study to determine if virtual reality could provide relief for soldiers burned in combat.

    In the game, players can fly around and throw snowballs at penguins and snowmen. Hoffman and Patterson created the game to distract patients from painful wound treatment and physical therapy. The study is expected to be completed in October 2009.

    [1] “Los Angeles Researcher Jeffrey Gold Examines the Power of Virtual Reality Environments for Youngsters in Pain.” Oct. 9, 2008.
    [2]  Ibid.
    [3]  Ibid.
    [4] Maani, Christopher, et al. “Pain Control during Wound Care for Combat-Related Burn Injuries Using Custom Articulated Arm Mounted Virtual Reality Goggles.” Journal of CyberTherapy & Rehabilitation. Summer 2008, Volume 1, Issue 2.
    [5]  Ibid.
    [6]  Ibid.
    [7]  Ibid.
    [8] DeBolt, David. “3-D Game May Help Soldiers Burned in Combat Deal with Pain during Physical Therapy.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Nov. 13, 2008.
    [9]  Ibid.

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