BURN PATIENT participates in a virtual-reality program to relieve the pain of his wound care at Harborview Burn Center in Seattle (above). Wearing a headset and manipulating a joystick, the patient maneuvers through the program called SnowWorld (right), which was specifically designed to ease the pain of burn victims. Studies show that virtual-reality programs are more effective than ordinary video games in distracting patients from the often excruciating pain of wound care. Image: HUNTER G. HOFFMAN (burn patient); STEPHEN DADAGAKIS University of Washington (SnowWorld); ¿ HUNTER G. HOFFMAN
In the science-fiction thriller The Matrix, the heroes "plugged in" to a virtual world. While their bodies rested in reclining chairs, their minds fought martial-arts battles, dodged bullets and drove motorcycles in an elaborately constructed software program. This cardinal virtue of virtual reality--the ability to give users the sense that they are "somewhere else"--can be of great value in a medical setting. Researchers are finding that some of the best applications of the software focus on therapy rather than entertainment. In essence, virtual reality can ease pain, both physical and psychological.
For the past several years, I have worked with David R. Patterson, a pain expert at the University of Washington School of Medicine, to determine whether severely burned patients, who often face unbearable pain, can relieve their discomfort by engaging in a virtual-reality program during wound treatment. The results have been so promising that a few hospitals are now preparing to explore the use of virtual reality as a tool for pain control. In other projects, my colleagues and I are using virtual-reality applications to help phobic patients overcome their irrational fear of spiders and to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in survivors of terrorist attacks.
This article was originally published with the title Virtual-Reality Therapy.