It's a Different World

Burn victims. Trauma patients. Even arachnophobes. Each of these is being treated by a cutting-edge virtual reality program that helps patients deal with fear and pain.

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.

Through his relationship with Patterson, who was already working as a psychologist treating burn patients, Hoffman ported his virtual reality-focused treatment over to the field of pain relief in 1996 with the creation of “SnowWorld”.

As the virtual worlds improve in quality and the development costs decline, hospitals are showing an increased interest in the new technology.  Already, the price of the system has dropped from $90,000 in 1993 to $30,000 today; and the weight of the helmet has dropped from 8 pounds a decade ago down to 2 pounds today.

Even with the continued development process, there are still limitations.  Patients sometimes get motion-sickness from “flying” through the icy imaginary slopes of “SnowWorld” if they remain for more than 15 or 20 minutes, Patterson says.  Also, it’s difficult to find the programming talent needed to create such all-encompassing, realistic computer simulation.

“You need Disney money,” says Patterson, if you want to attract the programmers capable of creating realistic new alternatives.

While researchers have been approached by the venture capital world, Patterson says that for right now they’re happy to give the specialized virtual reality software to other collaborators, while they continue their own work which is supported by grants from the National Institutes of Heath and the Paul Allen Foundation.

One of those would-be collaborators is New York City’s Weill Cornell Medical Center, one of the largest burn treatment facilities in the country. Weill Cornell just started using the virtual reality technology for burn treatment a few weeks ago, but the hospital has been enlisting the system for almost three years to treat Sept. 11 survivors suffering post-traumatic stress.

Dr. JoAnn Difede, an associate professor for the department of psychiatry and the director of Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Studies Program at Weill Cornell Medical College, has used the system in her work with at least 15 World Trade Center survivors.  These particular patients were having trouble moving forward with their treatment because they could not fully engage their memories of Sept. 11.

Using the VR system, Difede has been able to take her patients into a world that mirrors lower Manhattan before the attacks, and then gradually expose them to a virtual simulation of the day’s events, complete with network news sound footage of the actual events. 

The treatment gives patients the ability to reconnect with their memories of that day, an important step for the healing process, says Difede.

“Once they can really experience it,” Difede says, “they can begin to heal.”

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