Researchers at the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Laboratory developed a virtual reality pain control system in a video game which provides a distraction that overwhelms the senses and diverts the brain’s attention away from processing the pain signals. The video SnowWorld is an icy cool world designed to help sooth those who enter and become distracted from their current world and reality.
Dr. Christopher Maani, the Institute for Surgical Research's Chief of Anesthesia, has been working on new ways to help burn patients handle the intense pain of their injuries, including using SnowWorld. Dr. Maani explains, "The system is a virtual world where you take the burn patient away from everything that reminds them of their burns." Think of a high definition video game tailored to make the patient forget about his burns. It's a first person game, much like shooter games such as "Call of Duty" and "Modern Warfare." But instead of hunting down opposing troops, the player runs through icy canyons, throwing snowballs at woolly mammoths and flying fish. "It's an arctic scene that takes them as far away from their burn injury as possible," Maani says. "We overwhelm their senses, overwhelm their vision and use things like noise-canceling headphones with calm, soothing music."
The video game provides the distraction that overwhelms the senses and diverts the brain’s attention away from processing the pain signals. With virtual reality distraction, you're taking a painful procedure like scrubbing off a wound and taking the person and putting them in an alternate world. And it works for as long as people seem to be in the virtual world.
The virtual reality of SnowWorld was dreamed up at the University of Washington by two psychologists, Dr. David Patterson and Dr. Hunter Hoffman where the patient concentrates on throwing snowballs at penguins and mastodons to the music of Paul Simon, instead of focusing on the painful wound care happening at the same time.
This process of using a video to help a person control their pain is similar to how meditation is used to control pain. In the video process, the use of the headphones and soothing music can help engage several senses to refocus the mind and thoughts towards a distracted activity. Meditation engages the mind and senses to help a person become immersed in an alternate reality, too. In meditation, you can create a world of images, sounds, colors, smells, and sounds to help you become disengaged from pain.
To learn more about about the SnowWorld videos, you can check out Rock Center with Brian Williams website, "Groundbreaking experiment in virtual reality uses video game to treat pain". You can also check out an article in "Time" called "Using Virtual Reality Games to Control Veteran's Pain."
Below is a short clip about this medical breakthrough.