The next time you find yourself in the hospital battling back severe aches and pains, don't be surprised if the doctor hands you an Oculus Rift instead of some pills and a glass of water.
Hospitals and doctors' offices across the country are starting to embrace virtual reality as a way to psychologically distract patients and help ease the anxiety and pain associated with some procedures. The technology has proved particularly effective with children, where the imaginative worlds and games before their eyes often put them at ease.
"Virtual reality is like dreaming with your eyes open," Dr. Brennan M. Spiegel, director of Health Services Research in Academic Affairs and Clinical Transformation at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center said in a statement. "I've seen patients and their families cry tears of joy using virtual reality at Cedars-Sinai to reduce pain without medications or drugs."
To bring virtual experiences to its patients, Cedars-Sinai partnered with AppliedVR, a startup focused on creating therapeutic virtual reality (VR) content. The selected apps include everything from guided mediation, with patients freely roaming a beautiful, serene campsite by the sea, to a game called "Bear Blast" that requires players to lob balls at adorable bears to gain points. To keep the experience as stress-free as possible, none of the games feature consequences of injury or death. This video shows how it works:
In an interview with MIT's Technology Review, Dr. Spiegel said 20 minutes of virtual reality has been found to reduce a patient's pain by an average of 24 percent. "That's a pretty dramatic reduction for an acute pain," he told the site. "It's not too different from what we see from giving narcotics."
Hunter Hoffman, director of the Virtual Reality Research Center at the University of Washington, has found the technology to be particularly effective at helping children suffering from severe burns. The VR game his team developed, called SnowWorld (seen in the video below), challenges kids to throw snowballs at snowmen and woolly mammoths while receiving treatment from nurses.
Hoffman told the Smithsonian Magazine that the VR experience cuts patients' pain by as much as half, in his opinion
"The logic behind how it works is that humans have a limited amount of attention available and pain requires a lot of attention," Hoffman said. "So there's less room for the brain to process the pain signals."
Down the road, especially as VR tech becomes more ubiquitous, companies like AppliedVR expect to add experiences that will ease everything from PTSD to body dysmorphia. We expect, as the video below shows, there will be a lot more smiles.