Did you ever have anyone tell you that it’s all in your head? It might involve physical, mental, or emotional pain. We don’t always like being told that the pain is all in our head, but the reality is that what’s happening inside our head does have a lot to do with our pain perception.
Because that is true, hospitals are beginning to tap into the power of virtual reality. For example, a burn patient undergoing a very painful debridement procedure tends to experience less pain if he simultaneously engages in some kind of a VR game. Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas, is one of a few hospitals experimenting with this approach as Ian King and Caroline Chen report (“Hospitals Try Giving Patients a Dose of VR” Bloomberg Businessweek. 9/12/16–9/18/16, pp. 34–35):
“The idea is that the distraction of the virtual worlds will be engaging enough to quiet the ‘harm alarm’ of pain, says Beth Darnall, a clinical associate professor at Stanford Health Care’s division of pain medicine, which has studied VR. In research done at Shriners and at Harborview Burn Center in Seattle, patients reported less discomfort. In some of the research, MRI scans of patients’ brains showed fewer pain receptors firing during VR use.” (p. 34)
This makes sense. How many of us have been deeply immersed in a story, book, play, concert, or movie only to realize afterwards how little we noticed our pain condition? VR of course creates a similar total immersion experience that refocuses the brain onto more pleasurable situations.
As is so often the case, here we have another example of a new technology finding multiple applications in diverse contexts. That’s an innovative solution that can work for us all!