The use of virtual reality (and even video games) as an alternative form of pain management isn’t exactly unheard of. Researchers are well aware of VR’s potential to distract patients at the dentist and combat phantom pains, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see VR turning up in the emergency room. Graduate students at St Joseph’s Hospital, France, have designed an immersive virtual program that is being used to help patients relax and increase pain tolerance without painkillers.
The program is surprisingly simple: patients strap on a pair of VR goggles just as you normally would, and dive into the 3D tranquility of snowy hillsides and Japanese zen gardens. Instead of tolerating the discomfort of surgery — such as treatment for a dislocated shoulder — they are distracted by pleasant auditory and visual stimuli that help them cope.
According to Dr. Olivier Ganasia, head of the hospital’s ER department, using VR during treatment is like ‘hypnosis’:
“(It) enables us to offer patients a technique to distract their attention and curb their pain and anxiety when being treated in the emergency room…I think in 10 years, virtual reality won’t even be a question anymore, and will be used in hospitals routinely”
At this stage, VR therapy is still considered experimental and more research is required to ensure it is being used correctly and to rule out the possibility it’s functioning as a placebo treatment. However, there is already some consensus that VR isn’t just good at distracting people; it also might be reprogramming the way the nervous system responds to pain in general.