Virtual Reality Therapy for Pain

Yes you heard that correctly! I bet you didn’t know that a simple virtual reality video game can help a burn patient get through the pain they experience during wound care, did you? Burn patients immersed in virtual reality called Snow-World during wound care experience strong non-pharmacologic “virtual reality analgesia.” Wound care is said to be more painful than getting the actual burn itself, so to be able to apply a simple non-pharmacological technique to reduce the pain for patients is a way to avoid high doses of opioids. In fact, the virtual reality game Snow-World has been shown to work better than morphine.

Snow-World was developed at the University of Washington by two psychologists, Drs. David Patterson and Hunter Hoffman. Using an fMRI brain scan the scientist measured the power of virtual reality to control pain. Significant reduction in pain-specific brain signals where seen when the patient was engaged in using virtual reality. The patients also reported a reduction in the amount of pain experienced when using VR, which supports the fMRI results. The scientist are also seeing that the greater the engagement/immersion the lower the reported pain.

Immersive virtual reality appears to display a non-pharmacologic dose-response relationship where more immersive virtual reality systems (presumed to be more attention grabbing) decrease pain more effectively than less immersive virtual reality systems. Interactivity increased the objective immersion of the virtual system, and increased the analgesic effectiveness of immersive virtual reality.

So from the study conclusions it appears that the mechanism of blocking the pain signals may in part be related to:

  1. Distraction
  2. Diverting the brains attention
  3. Increased overload of other stimuli (not focusing on pain)
  4. Immersion

Here is the video of how the virtual reality game works on Rock Center NBC News.

Dr. Narineh Hartoonian is a Clinical Health and Rehabilitation psychologist at the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine. She has several years of interdisciplinary clinical and research experience in health and rehabilitation psychology and has served the needs of many individuals with chronic medical conditions and disability. Dr. Hartoonian received her Bachelor and Master of Science in Physiology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Loma Linda University (LLU). She has taught various graduate and undergraduate courses in the physiological sciences, health and psychobiology.


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