September 15, 2009 / 1:47 PM / 10 years ago

Scientists find virtual reality helps relieve pain

SEATTLE, Washington (Reuters) - Teenager Jordan Robinson has faced excruciating pain since a backyard prank went wrong but treatment with virtual reality has given him some relief.

Undated image taken from a recent video footage shows 18-year-old Jordan Robinson grimacing in pain. REUTERS/Ben Gruber

Robinson, 18, and his friends thought it would be fun to shoot flaming arrows at bags full of gasoline in his backyard but it turned out to be a very bad idea, landing him in hospital with severe burns on both of his legs.

“I’ve broken bones, I have done all sorts of stuff and I have never felt a pain like this,” he told Reuters TV.

Robinson is taking morphine, but he also has access to a tool not commonly used in most hospitals — virtual reality pain reduction.

While nurses manipulate his scarred and tender body through physical therapy, his mind is far away, immersed in a computer-generated world of snow and ice using virtual reality.

Normally he’d be in great pain as his burned legs are made to bend and straighten during therapy but in his virtual world, Robinson is too busy throwing snowballs at penguins and snowmen to notice much pain.

“It helps a lot. I wasn’t expecting it to as helpful as it was. I haven’t ever done anything like that before but I definitely wasn’t expecting it to make as big of a difference as it did,” he said.

Robinson has Hunter Hoffman, the director of the Virtual Reality Research Center at the University of Washington to thank for the extra pain relief. Hoffman created “SnowWorld.”

“What virtual reality does is give them a place to escape. There is a natural tendency when you are in pain to want to leave the room or to get away from what is causing the pain,” said Hoffman who is continually working to refine his techniques.


“In this case, we need their bodies to stay there while they are being worked on but their minds can escape into “SnowWorld” and they have this illusion of going into this computer generated world. That leaves less attention available to process the pain signals.”

David Patterson, also a professor at Washington University and the head of psychology at the Department of Rehab Medicine at Harbor View Medical Center in Seattle, has been working with Hoffman for several years on the virtual reality project.

He explains that virtual reality is used two ways to help manage pain in burn victims — by distracting the patient and by using hypnotic suggestion during burn care.

Patterson said pain distraction alone has been proven to decrease the pain during burn treatment by between 30 and 50 percent in a clinical setting.

He hopes combining both techniques they can get even better results, ultimately leading to smaller doses of pain drugs.

Robinson’s mother, Kate, has been sitting by her son’s hospital bed as he heals and is hoping for a full recovery — although she hasn’t forgotten what put her son in hospital.

“As we were driving here I told him that I loved him and that I cared about him and that I was really sorry that he was going through all of this pain. But as soon as they get him all patched back together, I’m probably going to kill him,” she said.

For a video on beating pain with virtual reality, click: here

Editing by Belinda Goldsmith

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