Credit: Immersive Virtual Reality for Pediatric Pain. Andrea Stevenson Won, Jakki Bailey, Jeremy Bailenson, Christine Tataru, Isabel A. Yoon and Brenda Golianu. Children 2017, 4, 52

Credit: Immersive Virtual Reality for Pediatric Pain. Andrea Stevenson Won, Jakki Bailey, Jeremy Bailenson, Christine Tataru, Isabel A. Yoon and Brenda Golianu. Children 2017, 4, 52

Virtual reality (VR) has reached the masses thanks in part to new technological developments that have made it affordable. Researchers and practitioners have developed projects where VR is used to address issues in different fields of technology and science. Medicine is one of these areas where VR applications have significantly increased. VR is used for training of medical and nursing students and for teaching basic anatomy to physician assistants and other technicians going through school to earn a certificate in health sciences. Doctors and specialists have implemented VR in the hospital in diverse specialties and as another option for patients with varied prognosis.

One such application is pain management patients use VR to take their mind away from the pain they go through due to their specific illnesses. It is well known that doctors try to help their patients manage their pain by recommending a combination of medication, therapies, and alternative procedures. But since computers are now ubiquitous in hospital settings, doctors have implemented the use of PCs that contain immersive environments, games, puzzles, and other programs, with the purpose of offering patients a distraction from pain.

It has been reported in research studies that the use of computers in this way does provide alleviation from pain. Unfortunately, it has been found that patients end up dropping the use of the PC since, although it may provide an immersive system that challenges the mind, patients still can turn their attention to other non-engaging tasks within the PC, and they end up back to feeling pain.

Smartphones have provided an alternative to doctors looking for tools to offer patients regarding pain management. Many apps have been developed for this purpose, both free and paid versions. Here the same problem is found as in PCs: patients end up turning their attention to other features within the phone and they would start gradually concentrating on the pain again.

With the advent of the Oculus Rift (OR), new possibilities have opened. Google has a version of this technology called the Cardboard, both need a smartphone to work properly. It is obvious that wearing such a device completely immerses a user in the environment displayed by the screen, this provides an almost zero distraction setting.

Credit: Cardboard Mobile Virtual Reality as an Approach for Pain Distraction in Clinical Settings: Comparison, Exploration and Evaluation with Oculus Rift. Ashfaq M. Amin Xin Tong Diane Gromala Chris D. Shaw. CHI 2017

Credit: Cardboard Mobile Virtual Reality as an Approach for Pain Distraction in Clinical Settings: Comparison, Exploration and Evaluation with Oculus Rift. Ashfaq M. Amin Xin Tong Diane Gromala Chris D. Shaw. CHI 2017

The applications are not restricted to adult patients only. It has been tested and applied to pediatric medicine as an option to manage acute and chronic pain in children. It has been found that the use of hardware is just one aspect when using VR. In child patients, researchers have tested the use of software programs, along with VR, that keep the patient immersed while going through a procedure or that take attention away from pain. Movies or short games provide only a temporary benefit. It is important to develop complex environments that stimulate and engage the patient for longer periods of time.

Of course, and especially with children, the use of VR has to be supervised and it cannot be used to substitute other more conventional methods (like medication). Also, children are more impressionable so the VR environment needs to be carefully selected. In adult patients, since they can be more adept to the technology, misuse of the VR environments can conduce to other problems (addiction to porn, for example).

It is important to point out the great benefits of VR in medicine, specifically in its use for medicine as a research tool. Doctors and health providers have embraced the use of VR as another option for pain management that they are now offering to their patients. Of course, the use of VR needs to be supervised by a physician and other health providers, it will also need security settings that can restrict the use of VR for applications other than pain management. Finally, it seems that technology such as OR, or Cardboard, provides better results than conventional systems like PCs and smartphones.