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Imagine feeling a pain so intense that not even morphine can dull it completely.  There’s only one thing left to do: go somewhere else in mind, if not in body.

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Human Interface Technology Laboratory are using virtual reality to help alleviate the agonizing pain of burn patients at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center by letting them escape to another, more soothing world. 

For the last seven years, doctors and nurses at Harborview, a leading regional burn center, have strapped patients into high-tech headgear that transports them to a virtual world of cool snowmen and waddling penguins while their wounds are cleaned, dressings changed and healing skin stretched during physical therapy, typically the most painful experiences for these victims.

Click here to see the headgear,
therapy, and VR worlds


Immersed in “SnowWorld”, patients reportedly experience as much as a 60 percent reduction in pain because their attention is diverted away from the procedures, according to Dr. David Patterson, a psychologist who works with these patients. 

Though initially focused only on burn victims, researchers say that in the long term, this attention-grabbing technology will help people, especially children, undergo difficult dental procedures, stay motionless during a CAT scan or overcome post-traumatic stress. 

“Except for using drugs, it’s a pretty unique experience when your mind goes to a place where your body isn’t,” says Dr. Hunter Hoffman, who heads the university’s study of virtual reality pain relief.

Pain has a significant psychological component. It begins when nerves transmit the feeling of trauma, and the brain interprets how much feeling there will be. By plunging a person into a virtual world, the mind is distracted from processing the pain.  The end result is that doctors can cut back on the use of strong, addictive drugs such as morphine.

The graphical content of the virtual world makes it a particular hit with game-playing adolescents and young adults. Unlike parking a prospective patient in front of the Microsoft Xbox, according to Hoffman and Patterson’s research, a digital experience such as “SnowWorld” captivates users completely.

“There’s a greater sense of presence in the virtual reality world that keeps you from attending to the external,” says Patterson.

With a background as a researcher studying human memory and attention at Princeton University and the University of Washington, Hoffman first conceived of using virtual reality to help people overcome phobias.  In 1993, he helped develop “SpiderWorld”, a place arachnophobes could experience a virtual close encounter with eight-legged critters.

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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