Virtual reality, a term that is associated more with computer scientists and gamers, has been making waves in the medical field. Researchers have been studying virtual reality’s possible abilities in relieving pain for patients. In fact, studies have shown its efficacy in providing an effective distraction from painful medical procedures. So what does this mean for surgeons?

Gone are the days virtual reality (VR) is solely being used as a research tool for computer scientists and a source of entertainment for gamers. The use of virtual reality has shown an increasing importance to physicians and researchers as a way to reduce pain.

The current state

Imagine cruising through an icy three-dimensional canyon as you hurl snowballs at penguins, mammoths and snowmen. This is a part of SnowWorld, an immersive VR world developed at the University of Washington, in collaboration with the Harborview Burn Center, with the specific intention to relieve pain in burn patients.

Currently, patients with severe burns from neighbouring states are sent to the Burn Center for special care. Their pioneering efforts in treating burn pain had significantly increased the chances of patients surviving a bad burn, and also in terms of improving their quality of living.

The science behind it

Burn patients often report that the burn experience continues to remain intense despite wound care. SnowWorld was designed to help burn patients put out the “fire” of the pain. Researchers put forth a theory for the efficacy of VR in reducing pain. According to them, pain perception is not just a physical sensation; it also has a psychological component. Depending on how the patient perceives it, pain itself can be perceived either as “painful” or not.

Since pain requires conscious attention, with the patient being virtually “drawn” into a different world as in the case of VR, the resources of the brain are diverted. In VR, the patient is engulfed with an illusion of being in another world. This stimulation leaves the brain with less attentional resources to process pain signals. As such, the brain is no longer preoccupied with the pain and will consequently experience it less.

The end of General Anaesthesia?

In Mexico City, Jose Luis Mosso Vazquez supervises an operation on a 61-year old lady for a lipoma surgery without any sedation. As the surgeon makes the incision and blood spills out of the wound, the patient remains completely oblivious. She is exploring a three-dimensional VR world of Machu Picchu. She has always wanted to visit the mountain but her health constraints had not made it possible. She looks in awe at the ancient walls. She ventures into the deep winding valleys.

Mosso is among those who are trying to bring VR to carry out operations which normally require sedatives and painkillers. He is out to prove that reducing drug doses not only reduces recovery times in patients but also diminishes post-medical complications. The patient and the monitoring equipment proved him right: The patient reported no sense of stress during the whole surgery procedure, and the equipment indicated that the patient’s blood pressure actually fell during the procedure.

VR can therefore potentially be harnessed for procedures which could have otherwise required powerful sedatives. The fact is, while general anaesthesia is overall safe for most people, there are still risks. Among the specific conditions that can increase complications during surgery are people with seizures, diabetes, obstructive sleep apnea, high blood pressure, and medications that can increase bleeding. Some people may also develop unpleasant side effects. With the fine-tuning of the VR technology, performing surgery on these groups of people without the use of any sedation may be conceivable in the near future. MIMS

Read more:
Teaching medical students of the future: High-tech is the way to go
3 virtual learning resources for nurses
Hololens: Virtual Reality brings medical education to a whole new level