Mind over Matter--Virtual Reality and Pain Control

UW Researcher Hunter Hoffman demonstrates a virtual reality helmet that may someday help burn patients.

Virtual reality may also play a role in helping burn patients alleviate their pain. Some dentists already use virtual reality with their patients, and children viewing cartoons through TV "glasses" have been reported to experience less pain and fear.

Now researchers at the UW Burn Center at Harborview and the UW Human Interface Technology (HIT) Laboratory have joined forces to see if virtual reality can also temporarily distract burn patients from experiencing pain.

"Pain requires conscious attention," says Hunter Hoffman, a research scientist at the HIT Lab. "An attention-grabbing, 3-D, interactive computer-simulated environment may help these patients by allowing them to focus on something other than their pain."

Patients in the burn center will soon have the chance to wear virtual reality glasses to experience new worlds. They may explore a shipwreck on a shark-infested ocean bottom, create a building-sized atom, or navigate their way through a fully furnished virtual house.

The interdisciplinary research team is reasonably confident that offering patients virtual reality will reduce their subjective intensity of pain during dressing changes. If patients respond favorably to these informal virtual reality tests, empirical studies will soon follow.--Larry Zalin

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