Virtual Reality Victorious Against Pain

It's easing the discomfort of dentistry, burns, even cancer care

FRIDAY, March 18, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- Minnesota dentist Dr. Kimberly Harms admits that, like many of her patients, she's "chicken" when it comes to getting her own teeth drilled and filled.

"Ask my husband -- he's my dentist. I actually went through a lot of dental work recently, and I really wasn't looking forward to it," she said.

Luckily, Jane Austen was there to help.

"I have the whole Austen series -- movies like Sense and Sensibility," Harms explained. As her husband probed, prodded and drilled around her bicuspids, Harms drifted back to 19th-century England, watching Emma and other classics via special video-equipped goggles.

"We've actually used them here to distract and soothe patients for almost 10 years now --- they're absolutely wonderful, for both kids and adults," Harms said. "Kids watch Disney cartoons, but we use them for grown-ups too."

While Harms and her husband were among the virtual reality pioneers, the use of videos and virtual reality goggles as a means of improving the dental care experience is now becoming standard practice in offices across the country.

Virtual reality is also helping to ease the pain associated with more serious conditions. Dr. Hunter Hoffman, a pain expert at the University of Washington, Seattle, said virtual reality devices have worked wonders for patients recovering from severe burns.

"Usually, during procedures they're just thinking about their pain and how much it hurts. In wound care, they focus on how long it's going to take or what the nurse is going to do next," he said.

Hoffmann recently completed a study of burn patients using headsets that allowed them to enter into a kind of computer-generated fantasyland as they underwent painful wound care.

"We found very dramatic reductions in pain-related brain activity when they were in virtual reality," compared to when they were not, Hoffmann said, with patients generally enthusiastic about the relief virtual reality provides.

He believes the devices distract brain activity away from neurological pain centers. "That's what's making it work so well -- it's grabbing attention, making it go to another place," he said.

The spirits of cancer patients undergoing stressful chemotherapy may also get a lift from video-generated virtual worlds.

"We've done series of three studies so far -- one with adolescents, one with younger women with breast cancer, and one with older women with breast cancer," said Susan Schneider, a specialist in cancer care at Duke University Medical School.

Her team found the use of video headsets seems to take patient's minds off the fear and anxiety surrounding chemotherapy, allowing them to escape for a while from the reality of cancer care.

"Some folks relax because it's taking their mind off things," Schneider said. "We see their blood pressure dropping, they appear to have calmer breathing. Others get excited by the virtual reality scenarios -- they can be solving a mystery or deep sea diving."

For some, she said, chemotherapy changes from something that's dreaded to something that's almost enjoyable.

Harms, who's also a consumer advisor for the American Dental Association, said patients who use the video goggles sometimes end up with a whole new perspective on their ordeal.

"I remember one guy, he watched the movie Castaway," she said. "There's a scene in that movie where Tom Hanks has to pull a rotten tooth out all by himself. When we finished, the patient looked at me and said 'Wow, I'm sure glad I had that done here.'"

More information

To learn more about Hoffman's research, visit the University of Washington.

SOURCES: Kimberly Harms, DDS, Farmington, Minn., and consumer advisor, American Dental Association; Hunter Hoffmann, Ph.D., director, Virtual Reality Analgesia Research Center, Human Interface Tecnology Lab, University of Washington, Seattle; Susan M. Schneider, Ph.D, director, Graduate Oncology Nursing Program, Duke University Medical School, Durham, N.C.
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