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Virtual World May Help Relieve Patients’ Pain

Researchers use computer-game technology to help patients with burns (June 24)

Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. are hoping to use the hi-tech world of virtual reality to relieve pain in hospitalized patients.

The investigators are working on using computer-game technology to alleviate patients’ pain and discomfort through distraction therapy. The patients would be able to wander around a virtual world based on the natural delights of Devon, England, with simulated “walks” along a coastal path or through woodlands.

Dr. Charlotte Small, who is leading the clinical side of the project, said: “The work we are looking at is the use of virtual reality in a number of ways, initially around pain management. These mainly involve the changing of dressings of burn patients and complex trauma involving military patients, but we are also looking at the issue of phantom limb pain.

“We are looking to design a purpose-built system so it can be used by patients with even severe injuries.”

The project, which focuses on “virtual nature therapy,” will involve two virtual worlds developed at the University of Birmingham. They consist of Virtual Wembury and Virtual Burrator, two towns that exist in Devon.

Virtual Wembury provides users with a mile-long coastal path, while Virtual Burrator is based around an actual reservoir in Dartmoor. The Virtual Wembury game also has a speedboat version that patients can control, while further work could involve patients sitting in a “virtual pedal boat,” which they can power by moving their legs in bed.

“Research says viewing nature is relaxing and therapeutic,” said Small. “Using a screen, you can decide to walk up a hill, go over a bridge, or sit on the beach and watch a sunset or boats going by.”

Initially, patients will be provided with a simple “ring mouse,” enabling them to jump between selected viewpoints but still be free to look around at the changing scenery. As they get better, they will be able to walk around their virtual world using a series of different controls and with the benefit of natural sounds through headphones.

“Previous research suggests that exposing individuals to natural environments, such as rural and coastal settings, can promote stress reduction and reduce post-operative recovery times and the need for pharmaceutical pain relief,” said Professor Bob Stone, who led the virtual reality side of the project.

Source: University of Birmingham; June 24, 2013.

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