For patients who have suffered traumatic burn injuries, the pain continues long after they’ve been taken to the hospital. While opioids are sufficient to manage their pain from the injury alone, the pain these patients experience during treatment and physical therapy is often described as unbearable, even with the use of opioids. For years, physicians have struggled to make burn patients more comfortable during these excruciating procedures. However, researchers here at the University of Washington have come up with an inventive solution— an immersive Virtual Reality experience they call Snow World.
Researchers Hunter Hoffman and Dr. David Patterson developed SnowWorld in collaboration with the Harborview Burn Center in an attempt to reduce this extreme pain associated with burn victims’ rehabilitation and treatment . SnowWorld is administered through an Oculus Rift helmet, which replaces the viewer’s sight and sound of the hospital setting with an interactive snowy landscape and background music by Paul Simon. The patient uses either a mouse or head tracking to throw snowballs at snowmen, igloos, woolly mammoths, and more. Patients who are administered SnowWorld during treatments experience a significant decrease in pain, and often report that these once excruciating procedures are now fun-- a huge step particularly for children that have to undergo these treatments .
How can SnowWorld actually affect the amount of pain a patient experiences? It turns out that the secret lies in the realm of attention manipulation. The painful stimuli that come with treatments require attention from the brain. Usually, these stimuli are significant enough to take up most of a person’s processing power; however, SnowWorld was designed to be a particularly “attention-grabbing” virtual reality. By blocking out the sights and sounds of the hospital, and replacing them with something even more demanding for the brain to focus on, patients have significantly less processing power to devote to the painful stimuli of treatment—and thus feel less pain . fMRIs taken during a treatment with Snow World show a significant reduction in activation of areas of the brain associated with pain, such as the thalamus, anterior cingulate cortex, and the primary and secondary somatosensory cortices .
While this certainly isn’t the first use of virtual reality therapy, SnowWorld has proven to be not only extremely successful, but also a viable option for hospitals to implement on a regular basis because of the relatively cheap cost of the virtual reality equipment it uses. An Oculus Rift headset costs about $400; previous systems like it ran closer to $35,000, making them unrealistic options for day-to-day treatment . SnowWorld (or other versions like it) also has the potential to reach far beyond burn patients, to everything from the treatment of phobias to PTSD. It also offers the potential to move treatment to the patient’s home. All in all, SnowWorld is a big step in the right direction for the use of virtual reality in medicine, and can hopefully lead to the development of even more uses for this amazing technology.
- Hoffman, H. Virtual Reality Pain Reduction. Retrieved July 27, 2015, from http://www.hitl.washington.edu/projects/vrpain/
- Hoffman, H. G., Meyer, W. I., Ramirez, M., Roberts, L., Seibel, E. J., Atzori, B., & ... Patterson, D. R. (2014). Feasibility of articulated arm mounted Oculus Rift Virtual Reality goggles for adjunctive pain control during occupational therapy in pediatric burn patients. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, And Social Networking, 17(6), 397-401. doi:10.1089/cyber.2014.0058
- Maani, C., Hoffman, H., Morrow, M., Maiers, A., Gaylord, K., Mcghee, L., & Desocio, P. (2011). Virtual Reality Pain Control During Burn Wound Debridement of Combat-Related Burn Injuries Using Robot-Like Arm Mounted VR Goggles. The Journal of Trauma: Injury, Infection, and Critical Care. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
- Hoffman, H., Richards, T., Coda, B., Bills, A., Blough, D., Richards, A., & Sharar, S. (2004). Modulation of thermal pain-related brain activity with virtual reality: Evidence from fMRI. NeuroReport, 1245-1248. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
- Hoffman, H. (2004). Virtual-Reality Therapy. Scientific American, 58-65.