By Christina Orlovsky, contributor
Video games have long been a tool for people young and old to escape the realities of life. Now, thanks to the technology behind virtual reality, games can offer those suffering from severe pain the chance to step into a more serene and less painful world outside their own.
SnowWorld, an “immersive virtual reality” software program, provides burn patients with a fun, high-tech method of relieving the pain associated with their healing process.
SnowWorld, an “immersive virtual reality” software program developed by researchers at the University of Washington and Harborview Burn Center in Seattle, Washington, provides burn patients with a fun, high-tech method of relieving the pain associated with their healing process.
“With immersive virtual reality, the participant puts on a virtual reality helmet that blocks their view from the real world,” explained SnowWorld co-creator Hunter Hoffman, Ph.D., of the University of Washington. “Sights and sounds from the real world, such as the sight of tweezers and sounds of other patients nearby moaning or asking their therapist to stop hurting them, are substituted with soothing, attention-grabbing synthetic computer generated images and sound effects—including music by Paul Simon.”
In the interactive SnowWorld, patients aim with their gaze and press a mouse button to throw snowballs at snowmen, igloos, penguins and mammoths, which retaliate with returned snowballs or angry noises.
“The essence of immersive virtual reality is the patient’s illusion of going inside the computer-generated world as if it’s a place they visit. This is what really distinguishes virtual reality from conventional video games,” Hoffman added. “While the game plan in video games is more advanced than SnowWorld, it is deliberately simple to play and is specifically designed for burn patients on medications and in pain. The sensation of going inside SnowWorld is stronger in virtual reality than the sensation of going inside games like Nintendo.”
This escape from reality is particularly beneficial for burn patients undergoing wound care.
“Many people pop right into SnowWorld, like it and think it’s fun,” Hoffman continued. “Ideally, as a bonus, when they come out, their wound care is already done.”
The game’s co-creator, David Patterson, Ph.D., professor and head of the division of psychology at the University of Washington in the department of rehabilitative medicine, has worked with Hoffman since 1996 on immersive virtual reality for pain control. He is particularly interested in psychological techniques for relieving the acute pain of burn patients and has found that SnowWorld is an effective tool.
“The notion is that it takes attention to process pain, so if you’re able to pull away attention, people do experience less pain,” Patterson explained. “The thing that’s so unique is that because of the virtual reality technology, the environment is so incredibly compelling and it pulls people’s pain away.”
In fact, Hoffman and Patterson have found that virtual reality typically reduces pain during wound care and physical therapy between 35 and 50 percent.
“This allows the wound care to go more quickly, and could, in theory, allow participants to get through wound care without such large doses of opioids, which often don’t work that well for such excruciating procedural pain,” Hoffman explained.
While SnowWorld is still in clinical trials, the researchers have noted the benefits for patients as well as for the wound care nurses, physicians, occupational therapists, physical therapists and psychologists who care for these patients. The researchers also envision a number of potential applications for immersive virtual reality across the spectrum of health care, from reducing stress during dental procedures to alleviating discomfort during non-invasive outpatient procedures to treating post-traumatic stress in combat veterans.
“Certainly this technology can be used for any type of acute pain and practically any type of medical procedure,” Patterson said. “Ultimately, we’ll find ways to apply it to chronic pain, combining it as a means to deliver hypnosis for chronic pain. One of the nice quotes I’ve heard is that we’re still in the Stone Age as far as software goes. As technology improves, the cost will go down and the potential will increase.”
Patterson concluded that virtual reality programs like SnowWorld are the perfect answer for a society that’s making its way toward complementary medicine.
“People are demanding more than just what conventional medicine can offer,” he said. “This has two types of allure: the technology and the gaming aspect and the move toward complementary and alternative medicine.”
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