Excessive pain during medical procedures is a widespread problem but is especially problematic during daily wound care of patients with severe burn injuries.
Burn patients report 35–50% reductions in procedural pain while in a distracting immersive virtual reality, and fMRI brain scans show associated reductions in pain-related brain activity during VR. VR distraction appears to be most effective for patients with the highest pain intensity levels. VR is thought to reduce pain by directing patients’ attention into the virtual world, leaving less attention available to process incoming neural signals from pain receptors.
We review evidence from clinical and laboratory research studies exploring Virtual Reality analgesia, concentrating primarily on the work ongoing within our group. We briefly describe how VR pain distraction systems have been tailored to the unique needs of burn patients to date, and speculate about how VR systems could be tailored to the needs of other patient populations in the future.
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SnowWorld is made available free of charge to eligible medical centers by the Hoffman and Patterson via Hunthoff@uw.edu. The most recent build of SnowWorld 2006 was designed by our UW team with creative input and worldbuilding by Firsthand Inc, Seattle.
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This manuscript was funded by the following NIH grants to Drs. Patterson and Sharar at the UW: NIH HD40954-01, 1R01AR054115-01A1, R01GM042725-17A1, the Scan Design Foundation by Inger and Jens Bruun, and NIH grant RO1 HD049471 to Dr. Oscar E. Suman (UTMB and Shriners Galveston).
Conflicts of Interest Statement
The authors have no conflict of interest to disclose.
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Left image, an artist’s rendition of a patients looking into SnowWorld via magnet-friendly VR goggles during an fMRI brain scan. Right image, with no VR (left head), the brain showed large amounts of pain-related brain activity (where yellow shows high brain activity and orange shows moderate brain activity). The participants reported less pain, and showed large drops in pain-related brain activity during VR, (head on right). (Image credits—left image by Duff Hendrickson, UW; copyright Hunter Hoffman, UW. Right image by Todd Richards and Aric Bills, UW; copyright Hunter Hoffman, UW) (DOC 66 kb)
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Hoffman, H.G., Chambers, G.T., Meyer, W.J. et al. Virtual Reality as an Adjunctive Non-pharmacologic Analgesic for Acute Burn Pain During Medical Procedures. ann. behav. med. 41, 183–191 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12160-010-9248-7
- Virtual reality
- Pain distraction