Immersion in virtual reality eases pain

Mon Jun 13, 2011 10:00pm EDT
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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - An aspirin or a video game?

Distracting patients by immersing them in a virtual world, sometimes by using a video game, appears to help reduce pain -- even in elderly patients who aren't used to such exposure, according to a U.S. study.

"I was surprised to see the level of analgesic response that the elderly patients demonstrated, because these subjects had little or no previous experience with video games or virtual reality (VR) distraction, unlike our younger subjects," said Sam Sharar, an anesthesiology professor at Washington University, who worked on the study.

The VR therapy involves a video game on a head-mounted display developed by Hunter Hoffman, a cognitive psychologist and researcher at the University of Washington.

In the experiment, presented at the annual meeting of the American Pain Society, 25 adults aged 60 and older were randomly assigned to either a low-immersion or a high-immersion VR environment, using a program called SnowWorld.

The high-immersion group moved along a virtual path through an icy canyon populated by snowmen, igloos, penguins, mammoths and fish, viewing it all though a display that blocked most of their vision of the real world.

They could look around to see sky above, canyon walls to their left and right, and below them a river teeming with mammoths and fish. With the click of a mouse they could toss snowballs at all the creatures.

They also heard sound in stereo, such as the roar of a mammoth when a snowball struck, the splash of a snowball in the river, background music, and other effects.

The low-immersion group used the same program with a display that did not block out the real world. Also, the image resolution was reduced, there were no sound effects, and no game-like interaction with the world -- simply a virtual walk on a path through a snowy canyon.   Continued...