Hunter Hoffman, a cognitive psychologist, was just researching ways to help his patients with their arachnophobia. In collaboration with a team of computer geeks, he helped invent a virtual reality (VR) game called SpiderWorld. In the game, patients put on a set of goggles and find themselves across a room from a spider. They are able to approach the spider at their own pace until they can stand near it and touch it without fear. The game has been very successful at helping people confront and overcome their phobia. But the significance of VR as treatment has become much greater.
Dr. Hoffman began considering the excruciating pain that burn victims endure during bandage changes and escharectomy. A game with spiders had been successful for fear, so why not something that addressed the pain of heat-induced wounds? Thus was born SnowWorld, a virtual reality game with snowballs, glaciers and penguins. The preliminary results show that pain is significantly decreased. What began as a small, personal research project has exploded onto the scientific and medical scene as an alternative to heavy-duty analgesics for relief of pain.
So what is the science behind using virtual reality for pain and why does it work? It is thought that the brain only concentrates on either the game or pain at one time. In essence, VR is thought to help redirect or, at least, distract one from focusing on their discomfort. Patients become so engrossed in this virtual world, that their attention is diverted from their pain. Another theory is that, allegorically speaking, the nervous system highway will only allow one car at a time to pass, meaning that itís either game or pain. Despite our incomplete understanding, the presumption is they just might be on to something.
Hoffman has used the technology to help those deeply affected by the 911 tragedy with their Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Recently, this work has been expanded to include veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The ability to help cope with debilitating physical and mental wounds is invaluable towards helping these warriors with rehabilitation.
But take this just a step forward. The most exciting part of this story is the implication for the thousands of people who suffer daily with chronic pain. They are most often prescribed dangerous and often ineffective pain medications rife with side effects. It is true that natural solutions have been examined with some success like meditation, herbs, and biofeedback. But just imagine the astounding effect of using a non-invasive, and even fun, method of conquering the disabling result of pain.