Virtual Reality Game Distracts Burn Victims From Pain

It is a well-known fact that distracting a child before ripping off a band aid is the best way to deal with the brief pain they may feel.  But two psychologists, Dr. David Patterson and Dr. Hunter Hoffman from University of Washington have taken the distraction method to a whole new level, creating a video game that that immerses burn patients into an artificial world.  SnowWorld is a video game that distracts burn patients from their painful reality and diverts their brain’s attention away from processing pain signals.

Burns victims often have to undergo excruciating procedures during recovery and the healing process can be more painful than getting the burn itself.  By placing patients in a virtual world during painful treatments, one that is made of cool temperatures, ice and snowmen, they are distracted from the pain.

On his first tour of duty in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Sam Brown was set on fire by an improvised explosive device that destroyed the vehicle he was in. He survived, but his recover and life since has been full of unbearable pain due to his extensive burn injuries. Even drugs like morphine offered little relief, and little hope.

The pain killing video game SnowWorld was introduced to him by his doctors and when they told him it was supposedly more effective than morphine, he was more than willing to give it a try.  A digital winter wonderland was just what Brown had been searching for to escape from his living hell.

In SnowWorld, burn patients can immerse themselves into an icy 3D canyon,  a world where they can throw snowballs at penguins and mastodons and listen to music such as “Call Me Al” by Paul Simon.  They visit this virtual world by wearing highly customized glasses whilst they are undertaking painful wound care.

The treatment seems to work for as long as the patient is in the alternate world.  In 2011, the military conducted a small study using SnowWorld and got stunning results.  Soldiers who had experienced pain at the highest level possible due to burn injury reported that SnowWorld worked better than morphine for pain relief.

Scientists have found many different elements can affect how we experience pain, including our emotions, environment, context and distractions. Some statistics that have been gathered since its release have seen that time spent thinking about pain, which is an inextricable contributor to actual pain, dropped from 76 percent without SnowWorld to 22 percent with SnowWorld.

A growing number of burn centers around the world are showing interest in using SnowWorld with their patients, including hospitals in New York, Hawaii, Copenhagen and Holland.