Distraction as a pain-relieving technique has been known for a long time. Many of us have seen or even administered it at one point or the other – showing a toy to a child during a doctor’s examination, slapping the opposite buttock lightly during an intramuscular injection, massaging the lower back of a woman in labor. All these simple actions have a common goal – to divert the attention from the source of pain by focusing it on something pleasant or just different.
The distraction technique is based on the concept that the capacity of the human brain is limited. It can process only a certain amount of data at any time. While pain occurs in different parts of the body, it is still processed by the brain, thus, loading the brain with other information might make it allocate less capacity to pain. It can multi-task only up to a certain point, and when a pleasant experience is powerful enough, pain may become less prominent and more tolerable.
Moreover, studies show that mental distraction is not only “in your head”. It may cause responses in other body parts that are affected by pain resulting in more tolerable overall experiences.
VR as a pain-relieving component
In the context of distraction, virtual reality is definitely the winner. The fully immersive, realistic, interactive experiences it creates are capable of occupying a great share of a person’s attention and taking it away from what is causing pain. As a distraction factor, it is much more effective than books, toys, music, films, or massage. The power of VR is in the ability to transport the user into a totally new world and block the unpleasant and painful reality completely.
How it works
Patients about to undergo a painful treatment or suffering chronic pain are offered special VR experiences, either with or without interaction. Depending on the patient’s persona and the treatment condition, the VR theme can be a relaxing environment – a beach, a sun-dappled forest, an underwater swim with dolphins, – or a game requiring the active involvement of the patient.
During the treatment, the patient is wearing a headset and either calmly enjoys the virtual world or interacts with the virtual objects via a joystick. In all cases, the special VR equipment and software take into account the possible limitations of the patient’s movement, their body position, and other specifics of the hospital environment.
As a result, patients using VR display significantly lower anxiety before and during the treatment and confirm a lower level of pain. In some cases, patients are immersed so deeply that they do not even notice the unpleasant treatment; this is especially prominent with young patients who tend to be truly carried away by the VR experiences:
There are observations showing that sometimes even chronic pain can be reduced by VR sessions:
Practical use cases
Virtual reality is already in use in many medical facilities to reduce pain and anxiety in patients during various treatments. Its effect is especially visible in children’s hospitals where VR is used to make a child more cooperative during treatment. Unlike adults, young patients are often very scared and may become aggressive when they realize that it’s going to hurt. Treating a screaming and thrashing child can become a real challenge.
With the use of VR, children are much more likely to become cooperative during medical treatment. As a result, the procedures take less time and are less traumatic for the child. As a side effect, we can point out that the application of VR with an exciting game or story in a doctor’s room can even make the child look forward to the next visit rather than fear it.
Another study shows a positive pain-reducing effect on women in labor. At the same time, other vital parameters did not differ between women who used VR and those who did not, which leads to the conclusion that VR can be considered safe for use during labor.
VR has proved to be a powerful pain-relieving component in the treatment of burn victims. Burns are among the most painful injuries, and their treatment makes the patients suffer even more. With burns, the wounds require everyday care – washing, dressings change – that raises the pain to the level of excruciating. Virtual reality has tremendous potential here as a means of drug-free pain control.
What should be also mentioned in the context of virtual reality as a pain reliever is its potential to reduce the usage of opioids. Opioids are highly addictive which can create additional problems for the patient. With VR, pain is reduced to a level where a less harmful, non-addictive drug can be prescribed.
Many hospitals are experimenting with VR as a method to reduce pain and anxiety in patients. St. George’s Hospital in the UK uses VR during wide-awake surgeries. According to patient surveys, 80% felt less pain and 73% were less anxious during their surgeries.
Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute applies virtual reality in cancer patient treatment. Patients say that immersion into a virtual world makes their hospital experience less unpleasant taking them away from the sad and painful reality.
Similarly, VR helps young cancer patients go through their treatments. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta shows exciting VR stories to kids who need to undergo certain painful procedures taking their attention off the unpleasant experiences and helping them come through them easier.
We offer a SaaS solution available at a quarterly or yearly subscription. The subscription includes the lease of a complete set of VR equipment with a 4K resolution headset, a software package, and full support. The VR content supplied as part of our product is constantly updated, and new improved and enhanced versions are available on a regular basis.
How is our solution different?
The market is full of virtual reality applications but you can hardly adapt any of them for use in a medical institution. Most of the available VR products are designed for healthy people in ordinary environments and may be unusable by patients with certain conditions.
Our product is developed taking into account that it might be used while sitting or lying down, that sometimes patients can use only one hand to manipulate the VR content, that it should not include active movements or require large space. The VR product we offer can be used in a standard hospital room and adjusted to the position and state of a particular patient.
What’s more, our solution does not need a PC or a laptop and is completely wireless. In the hospital conditions, these features are especially appreciated.
The product comes with a comprehensive onboarding flow introducing the patients to VR and helping them get started. In creating the onboarding sequence, we specifically focused on the needs of hospital patients who may start using our product in a state of stress, anxiety, or pain. We tried to make the introduction as smooth and user-friendly as possible.
And another thing – our solution was created for use in the Middle East region. In developing the VR themes and storylines, we took into account the local cultural specifics and traditions making virtual reality create experiences that would be the most natural and relaxing for people in the region.