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Tomorrow Today

Hospitals try VR techniques for pain management

virtual reality
Nathan wears a virtual reality helmet during his physical therapy

CNN's Rick Lockridge looks at virtual pain relief
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Hunter Hoffman describes a virtual reality trick
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May 21, 1999
Web posted at: 9:03 a.m. EDT (1303 GMT)

SEATTLE (CNN) -- A severe burn can be only the beginning of an extended ordeal for victims, who must go through an excruciating recovery and rehabilitation process in order to heal.

But the developers of an innovative new pain management program have found they can ease the recovery process by sending burn patients into a "virtual" world.

Nathan Larson, 17, is going through a painful course of physical therapy at Seattle's Harborview Hospital.

His legs were badly burned when someone threw gasoline on a bonfire.

"The gas got on me or something, and I caught fire," Larson explains.

He says the recovery process, which involves stretching his skin as it heals, is sometimes almost as painful as actually getting burnt.

But some of the sessions are more tolerable thanks to an experiment he's participating in that uses virtual reality to help burn patients manage pain.

The patient wears a virtual reality helmet during wound treatment, or physical therapy.

While the therapist works to stretch his burned skin so it will heal properly, Nathan is deep in a virtual world where he can see and feel a toy spider wiggling, or watch a virtual candy bar while biting into a real one.

virtual candy bar
A 'virtual' candy bar   

"They're just so absorbed in the VR experience that there's less consciousness available for pain," says psychologist David Patterson of the University of Washington.

"Pain is a psychological experience," adds psychologist Hunter Hoffman, co-developer of the program. "So how much pain the patient thinks they're experiencing is how much they're experiencing."

Patterson and Hoffman say the pain reduction has been dramatic in the six patients who have tried the virtual reality therapy.

"I was surprised that it worked this well," Hoffman says.

virtual spider
A scene in virtual reality   

He says the virtual environment, though cartoon-like in appearance, is fairly convincing because the patient receives converging evidence from multiple cues.

"You're able to touch the virtual objects, which makes you feel like they must be there," Hoffman says.

So far, physical therapists are impressed with the results.

"We actually had one patient who didn't even know that we had started his therapy," says occupational therapist Dana Yoko Nakamura.

Hoffman and Patterson have received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop the system further, using more sophisticated graphics.

Correspondent Rick Lockridge contributed to this report.

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University of Washington, Human Interface Technology Lab
National Institutes of Health (NIH)
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