The idea is that the worst pain can be alleviated by manipulating the route the human mind works: the more you focus on pain, the worse it feels. Swamp the brain with an overload of sensory inputssuch as with the submersion in a virtual worldand its capacity to process ache, to be conscious of it, goes down.
Pain is our harm alarm and it does a really good job of get our attention, said Beth Darnall, a clinical associate prof at Stanford Health Cares division of pain medication. She says VR, which Stanford has done some pilot studies on, is a psychological tool, like meditation, that can soothe the nervous system, and that dampens the pain processing.
In research done at Shriners by psychologists Hunter Hoffman and Walter Meyer, and similar work to be undertaken by Dave Patterson at Harborview Burn Center in Seattle, patients reported less inconvenience. Hoffman analyzed magnetic resonance imaging( MRI) scans of patients brains, which presented they actually experienced less pain.
At Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, Ronald Yarbrough is waiting in a room that overlooks the hospitals landing pad, hoping to see helicopter bring him a donor heart. He needs a transplant after his artificial one failed and is being kept alive by a machine. He has been trying a Samsung Gear VR headset and specially made software from a startup called AppliedVR. It helped take his mind off the fact that hes confined to a small hospital room thatcan feel like a jail cell. When his muscles relaxed, his ache receded, he said.
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I was on a lot of ache medication and Ive been able to whittle that down because Im not sitting around thinking about it, said the 54 -year-old former truck driver. He intends to buy a VR headset when hes discharged. I was very surprised by it. I didnt have the high expectations of it working. When I got into it, I was amazed.
Ronald Yarbrough tries out a VR headset at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.Photographer: David Nicholson/ Bloomberg
Proponents of VR are quick to point out that it could have a big benefit over medications, which can lead to tolerance over prolonged use and sometimes craving. But VRs effectiveness still has to be proven, particularly when trying to combat chronic pain. Does the effect last when the headset comes off?
We know that relaxation techniques like hypnosis, yoga, and meditation lessen your perception of ache, so VR has a lot of promise, but its too early for it to be the standard of care, said Houman Danesh, director of integrative pain management at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Its a very young technology.
Theres a lot more research needed before VR is going to be widely accepted as a ache relief technique. Brennan Spiegel, a gastroenterologist at Cedars-Sinai whos also director of health services research at the Los Angeles hospital, is about to begin a study on manymore patients. So far hes experienced a range of reactions. Older patients tend to be less open to it than younger ones. One terminal patient rejects to even consider it. One female, who suffered abdominal pain, get such immediate relief that she went home and bought herself a headset.
As a scientist, I want to understand rigorously how something like virtual reality can truly improve health outcomes compared to a control population, said Spiegel who said hes watched some amazing outcomes in the 150 or so patients hes tried it on. Virtual reality undoubtedly has an effect on the human mind.
VRs possibilities for use in pain management was discovered by collision. Tom Furness is a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Washington and considered to be the godfather of VR by his peers. He started looking into VR 50 years ago when he was in the Air force, and has spun off more than 20 research projects into companies. One of them was a 1993 consumer headset that relied on a Tv tuner and video tapes that sold for $799. It was a commercial flop because of the limited content, but a lot of dentists bought it.
The dentists loved it because their patients werent complain, he said. The experience confused children around their dread of injections, drilling and fillings.
That aha moment led to more research into the long-known phenomena of distraction and meditation as techniques to relieve ache. But just like Furness attempt to bring VR to the masses, it was held up by costs. Early VR equipment for medical utilize expense as much as $35,000 for a headset, said Hunter Hoffman, who analyzed with Furness at the University of Washington.
Thats all set to change this year. VR is graduating from geeky sideshow to big business and equipment prices are falling. Oculus Rift Headset retails at $599. HTCs Vive expenses $799. To get them to run, youll need a PC that costs about $999 to run the software. The markets going to continue to expand as Sony adds the capability to their game consoles and smartphone makers upgrade their technology to get closer to the kind of performance needed to provide an effective VR experience.
The economics may attain VR an attractive experimentation for some hospitals. Hospital care takes up to about 30 percent of the U.S.s annual$ 3 trillion in health-care spending, inducing it the most costly category of therapy. The cost of a headset and software is tiny compared to the expenditure of keeping a patient in the hospital for an extra day. So if theres a chance that VR could lead to an early discharge, it may make sense for a hospital to spend on the hardware, said Cedars-Sinais Spiegel.
Companies such as AppliedVR are already trying to make the distribution and development of the technology into a business. Theyre furnishing hospitals with the headsets and therapeutic software. Another startup, DeepStream VR, is also working on software and systems that help patients with burns and other injuries. ItsCool! software features the adventures of an otter.
They may have some work to do to keep patients interested. The VR madeher feel better, but Duke quickly got bored with SnowWorld, and that lessened the painkilling effect.
For teenagers they should find, like, different games, she said. That game they were showing me seemed like it was for little kids.
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