You glide across an icy canyon where you meet smiling snowmen, waddling penguins and a glistening river that winds forever. You toss snowballs, hear them smash against igloos, then watch them explode in vibrant colors.
Back in the real world, a dentist digs around your mouth to remove an impacted tooth, a procedure that really, really hurts. Could experiencing a “virtual” world distract you from the pain? NIGMS grantees David Patterson and Hunter Hoffman show it can.
Patterson, a psychologist at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, and Hoffman, a UW cognitive psychologist, helped create the virtual reality program “Snow World” in an effort to reduce excessive pain experienced by burn patients. However, the researchers expect Snow World to help alleviate all kinds of pain, including pain experienced during dental procedures.
To find out if life in Snow World really is painless, the scientists worked with healthy undergraduate student volunteers. One group of students were given immersive virtual reality (VR) glasses and a wireless mouse that enabled them to directly interact with the wintry environment. A second group of students received a passive VR system that included glasses but no wireless mouse. They saw the snowy world as if watching a movie, unable to go ice skating, make a snowball or pat a penguin. The researchers exposed both groups of students to brief periods of painful, but tolerable, heat both before and during their virtual reality experiences, and then measured their perception of pain.
Sure enough, even though all the students were exposed to an identical amount of heat, the ones fully immersed in the interactive virtual reality world reported 75 percent less pain than those in the non-interactive world. Our minds can focus on just a few things at once, the researchers say, so if we’re busy building igloos and making friends with snowmen, we have less brainpower available to register the heat on our bodies or the twang in our tooth.
Patterson and his team also have encouraging results reducing pain in pediatric burn patients using next generation VR goggles.
In addition, the team recently began testing augmented reality to promote movement in children with leg and foot burns. Movement facilitates healing of the skin, prevents muscle atrophy and promotes mental health. Specifically, the researchers are using Pokemon Go to motivate young patients to walk around the hospital (with close supervision) and capture Pokemon characters. The team is currently pursuing formal clinical trials.
While virtual environments can have drawbacks—like motion sickness, for one—they offer a promising new way to manage pain during medical or dental procedures. And, as recent research shows, reducing pain can speed recovery. Now that’s a relief!
This work was funded in part by NIH under grant R01GM042725.