Virtual reality is mostly known for immersive entertainment, e-learning and education purposes. But this versatile tool can bring so much more to the table. It’s also been used as a replacement for non-medication treatment. For example the treatment of multiple phobias, anxiety, depression and helping soldiers recover from PTSD (also known as virtual reality exposure therapy).

A recent trial from Northern General Hospital in Sheffield, United Kingdom brings new light to the use of virtual reality when it comes to pain relief. Patient treated for burn injuries at the Sheffield hospital are given a headset that distracts them from the painful process of changing bandages. Without the headset, this procedure is described as enduring an “excruciating pain”. Unfortunately, dressing the wounds is a frequent and intense task some patients can’t tolerate for long periods of time. To some patients, even the thought of having the wounds treated, gave a lot of stress and anxiety beforehand.

The virtual game experience itself is pretty simple. Patients find themselves in a virtual basketball video game, where virtual movements and actions are controlled by moving their heads. They can look around them, throw balls at objects and attempt beating their own high score while throwing the ball through the hoop. All while the nurse changes the wound dressings.   

How does distraction of the mind work exactly?
Feeling pain is important. It’s our bodies alerting us we’re in danger. It’s mind-blowing how patients feel little to nothing while exploring the virtual world. According to Dr. Chris Graham, our attentional resources are limited. We can merely focus to a number of things at the same time. In addition to that, it also feels like the patients are physically and mentally in a different place. They stop focussing on the pain, which leads to a decrease in pain. Or how Megan Moxon, a burn victim interviewed by CNN describes it: “It’s just out of sight, out of mind”.

It’s truly remarkable and mindblowing to see how virtual games impact the mind and body. Researchers are hoping more hospitals will adopt this technique over the years. We can only hope for this to actually happen, cause it makes the treatment of physical pain more bearable.

Screenshot photos from original video by BBC News England.