HITLab at the University of Washington has been working on the SnowWorld project, a virtual reality simulation of a frozen world, in which burn patients can play games involving snow, which actually lets them forget the pain.
SnowWorld, developed at the University of Washington HITLab in collaboration with Harborview Burn Center, was the first immersive virtual world designed for reducing pain. SnowWorld was specifically designed to help burn patients. Patients often report re-living their original burn experience during wound care, SnowWorld was designed to help put out the fire. Our logic for why VR will reduce pain is as follows. Pain perception has a strong psychological component. The same incoming pain signal can be interpreted as painful or not, depending on what the patient is thinking. Pain requires conscious attention. The essence of VR is the illusion users have of going inside the computer-generated environment. Being drawn into another world drains a lot of attentional resources, leaving less attention available to process pain signals. Conscious attention is like a spotlight. Usually it is focussed on the pain and woundcare. We are luring that spotlight into the virtual world. Rather than having pain as the focus of their attention, for many patients in VR, the wound care becomes more of an annoyance, distracting them from their primary goal of exploring the virtual world.
In our preliminary case study (Hoffman, Doctor, Patterson, Carrougher and Furness, 2000), two patients with severe burns went into SpiderWorld. They saw a virtual kitchen complete with kitchen countertops, a window with a partly cloudy sky, as well as 3-D cabinets, and doors that could be opened and shut.
Patients could pick up a teapot, plate, toaster, plant, or frying pan by inserting their cyberhand into the virtual object, and clicking a grasp button on their 3-D mouse. Each patient also physically picked up a virtual wiggly-legged spider possessing solidity and weight, using a mixed-reality force feedback technique developed by one of our team members. Patient 1 had 5 staples removed from a burn skin graft while playing Nintendo, and six staples removed from the same skin graft while in VR. He reported dramatic reductions in pain during VR.
Patient 2 showed a similar large but less extreme pattern (reduction of pain during wound care while in VR compared to while playing a video game). The results of these two patients are described in a clinical note in the March 10th, 2000 issue of the medical journal PAIN. Clinical notes are inconclusive by nature, and larger studies are needed (and underway).
In a related preliminary clinical study that is now completed, (Hoffman, Patterson and Carrougher, 2000), have found additional support for the efficacy of VR for pain control. Twelve patients with severe burns at Harborview reported highly significant reductions in pain levels during physical therapy when in VR compared to no VR (conventional treatment). In addition to distracting the patients, VR can likely be used to motivate patients to perform desired stretching motions, using behavioral reinforcement techniques (e.g., they could get more gas for their jet by gripping and ungripping their healing hand 10 times).
More from the HITLab…