Virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift are one of the top Christmas gifts this year. Hundreds of Americans are scrambling for the ability to run alongside dinosaurs, paint in the night sky, or immerse themselves in massive, multiplayer online roleplaying games.
But VR may not just be for gaming. Researchers are now studying whether virtual reality can help those struggling with injury or undergoing chemotherapy and other invasive treatments for illness cope with the pain and anxiety of medical care.
And they even think it could help women through the pain of childbirth.
A hospital in New York is already experimenting with the idea, outfitting women in labor with VR headsets that help them feel like they’re on a private, tropical beach. The program reminds the women to breathe, helps them calm their nerves, and attempts to distract them from contractions.
“I was on a beach, and there was a fire going. Wherever you moved, the scene moved with you. If I looked up, I saw the galaxy and the sun setting. On the right, there was a waterfall and a lot of movement with birds,” Erin Martucci, the first woman in New York to use the technology during labor told The Guardian. “It was really very calming. [The program] would teach me how to breathe and be really in touch with your body.”
A doctor monitored Martucci’s labor remotely, and her birth team sprang into action when it became clear from Martucci’s body language that the virtual paradise was no longer distracting her from contractions.
The VR theory builds on existing techniques for helping ease pain during the birth experience, like rhythmic breathing and partner feedback. And while the VR system isn’t a natural pain reliever (or even a replacement for, say, an epidural), doctors and researchers say that it improves concentration above and beyond regulated breathing and, even, guided meditation.
They admit, though, that not everyone will want to spend their labor hanging out on a beach, listening to the waves. The system does disassociate mothers from the natural process of childbearing, even if it might make it easier.
But VR pain management has other applications.
Chinese studies (and at least one other study done with burn patients) show promise in the field of long-term VR pain management, as well. Patients receiving dental surgery, children getting IVs, women receiving chemotherapy and people suffering from crippling anxiety have all benefited from time spent in virtual reality.