Can Virtual Reality Distract Hospital Patients from Pain in a Way Drugs Can’t?

In a new and experimental approach, select hospitals are testing out virtual reality headsets as a way to help patients cope with pain, as well as phobias and even depression.

The idea is simple. The more we focus on pain, the more we feel that pain. And usually there isn’t much else to focus on. But virtual reality overloads the brain with sensory input.

“Pain is our harm alarm and it does a really good job of getting our attention,” Beth Darnall, a clinical associate professor at Stanford Health Care’s division of pain medicine, told Bloomberg. VR is a psychological tool, like meditation, which she says can “calm the nervous system, and that dampens the pain processing.”

The State of Virtual Reality Today

Quoth Bloomberg:

In research done at Shriners by psychologists Hunter Hoffman and Walter Meyer, and similar work done by Dave Patterson at Harborview Burn Center in Seattle, patients reported less discomfort. Hoffman examined magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of patients’ brains, which showed they actually experienced less pain. Proponents of VR are quick to point out that it could have a big benefit over drugs, which can lead to tolerance over prolonged use and sometimes addiction.

As the virtual reality market becomes saturated, prices are coming down, rendering the headsets more affordable for hospitals. The Oculus Rift is $600; the HTC Vive is $800. Generally, it’s more expensive to keep a patient in a hospital for an extra day—VR headsets could easily pay for themselves by reducing this metric.

How Virtual Reality Headsets Work