After 10-year-old Blaine Baxter injured his arm in a go-kart accident last year, painful daily dressing changes at the hospital made him so anxious that he had to be sedated.
Then came virtual reality.
VR helps distract patients like Blaine Baxter from pain.
Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital
Two weeks into his stay at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, a team of pain management specialists recommended he try playing games using Samsung Gear VR. They were such an effective distraction that he didn’t need sedation anymore. He went from being scared anytime the doctor approached his room to happily embarking on deep sea adventures and zapping burgers in outer space with VR.
“It was a total flip,” says his mom, Tamara Baxter. “He was on so many medications as it was. It was one less thing that we had to pump into his system.”
Packard Childrens’ use of VR was spearheaded by the hospital’s Chariot program, an acronym for Childhood Anxiety Reduction through Innovation and Technology. The team works with developers to create games like Pebbles the Penguin, in which a luging penguin collects (you guessed it) pebbles, and Spaceburgers, where players zap flying objects including burgers by staring them down.
VR has been hyped as one of the next big trends in technology, potentially changing the way we communicate and interact with video games and films. But despite the backing of major players like Facebook, Samsung and Google, the masses haven’t adopted the technology, which is largely seen as a gimmick.
That’s not so for the medical community, where VR has been used for decades to help people overcome phobias and anxiety disorders. Less bulky and cheaper products have made it easier to roll VR out in more health care settings, from training medical students and midwives to helping stroke victims regain motor function.
Now, more researchers and hospitals are also finding that VR can reduce anxiety and pain perception during things like dressing changes, IV placement or epidural administration. It can also help patients relax before or after a procedure.
A Cedars-Sinai study from last March involving 100 hospitalized patients found that those who watched calming videos on a VR headset reported a 24 percent drop in pain scores. The other 50 patients who watched a standard, 2D nature video with relaxing scenes on a nearby screen experienced only a 13.2 percent reduction in pain.
Brennan Spiegel, director of health services research at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, says they’re still not exactly sure why VR is so effective at reducing pain.
“The brain is so complex that it’s hard to tease out precisely how something like virtual reality is working,” Spiegel said. But simple distraction is believed to be at play: The brain is so busy processing signals from VR that it has a hard time processing other signals, like pain.
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“If the science shows that it works, then it would be a fantastic application of VR,” says Global Data analyst Avi Greengart. “It may be that over the next 18 months, we find that VR rigs are prevalent in health care, even if they aren’t in your living room.”
Cedars-Sinai uses Samsung Gear VR through a partnership with Los Angeles-based content provider AppliedVR. In addition to games, patients can choose from content that virtually transports them to places like Big Sur or London.
“It literally tricks your brain into thinking that you’re somewhere totally different,” says 34-year-old Harmon Clarke, a patient at Cedars-Sinai with ulcerative colitis. “It