Virtual Reality is a Powerful Pain Management Tool
How can a child-like game relieve a soldier’s pain? People around the world are asking that very question as they become familiar with the story of Sam Brown and the researchers that created a virtual reality game called SnowWorld to relieve Sam’s pain. Sam Brown is a young West Point graduate that nearly burned to death in the Middle East. His caregivers used noise-cancelling headphones and fighter-pilot training goggles to immerse Sam into a playful world of snow balls and penguins to help ease the agony of treating his burns.
Hoping to harness the power of the brain, researchers have dedicated years to develop and study this new method of pain management. Virtual reality treatment actually changes the way the brain can perceive pain by flooding it with less-threatening stimuli. Using functional MRI images, the researchers can actually see a reduction in pain perception as the distracted brain focuses less on painful stimulation.1,2 In an interview with National Public Radio, one of the scientist, David Patterson, summarized the hypothesis by saying, “It takes a certain amount of attention to process pain. If you are able to put that attention elsewhere, there is less attention to process pain, and consequently, people will feel less pain.” These scientists from the University of Washington created SnowWorld as a result of their research.3
Although this new method of pain management is primarily being used in burn units,4 the same strategy could work for every type of pain.5 However, the limiting factor is the cost of the equipment because 3-D virtual reality goggles cost over $35,000. This technology does not seem very practical for real life situations at home. Or is it?
Today’s gaming equipment is getting very sophisticated. Using a combination of a crystal clear flat screen TV and some noise-cancelling headphones to block out any distractions, virtual reality can be created in someone’s living room. With the right game that is both fun and calming, the distracted brain could experience pain relief while playing in this virtual world.
Taking this pain management strategy one step further, the power of distraction could be even more accessible than buying some electronic equipment. Remember what was said about the fact that it takes a "certain amount of attention to process pain". Therefore, if one were to focus his/her attention anywhere else besides the pain, she/he could experience some pain relief. Virtual reality is just a means of redirecting focus. Even though there are many other forms of distraction, people in pain have a hard time maintaining focus. Without being absolutely submersed in an artificial world using high tech equipment, the brain slowly drifts back to the presence of pain. After using this equipment initially to train the brain, a virtual reality user might then be able to reproduce the experience by visualizing it in a quiet room.
Even if virtual reality does not become mainstream pain management technique, visualization, meditation, gaming, knitting, playing an instrument, or reading a book are other potential ways for individuals to redirect their attention away from the pain. In fact, the lessons learned from one soldier’s experience with virtual reality could potentially help millions who live with chronic pain. When medication is not enough, distraction has been proven to be a very useful additional method to control even the worst pain. Whether using a ball of yarn or a virtual reality gaming system, the key to harnessing the power of distraction is to find a distraction with enough attention-grabbing power to override the pain. And that’s how a child-like game can help a soldier in pain.
- CNS Spectr. 2006 Jan;11(1):45-51
- Ann Behav Med. 2011 Apr;41(2):183-91
- From: https://www.npr.org/2012/02/12/146775049/virtual-penguins-a-prescription-for-pain
- J Trauma. 2011 Jul;71(1 Suppl):S125-30
- Clin Psychol Rev. 2010 Dec;30(8):1011-8
Christina Lasich, M.D., wrote about chronic pain and osteoarthritis for HealthCentral. She is physiatrist in Grass Valley, California. She specializes in pain management and spine rehabilitation.