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Virtual realities against pain

21.07.2006
The feeling of pain produced during medical treatment can be reduced through sophisticated virtual reality helmets, a simple computer game and the determined predisposition of the patient. According to research psychologists at the UAB, this type of distraction even reduces the dosage of sedatives. Their research suggests putting greater emphasis on methodology and on psychological aspects of this technique in order to improve its property.

For over a decade, the technique of distraction has been researched and successfully applied in clinical practice in order to reduce pain associated with certain medical procedures. The use of distraction is based on the assumption that there is an important psychological element in the perception of pain, with the amount of attention given to the harmful stimulus affecting the perception of the pain.

Distraction techniques are based on the patient's limited capacity for attention, resulting in a reduction in the patient's attention to the stimulus and therefore a reduction in the stimulus itself. It was assumed that the ideal distractor would require an optimum amount of attention involving various senses (visual, auditory and kinaesthetic), an active emotional involvement, and participation from the patient to compete with the signals of the harmful stimuli.

The advanced distraction techniques (ADTs) recently developed use 3D images combined with dynamic audio stimuli, making the techniques more likely to meet the requirements of an ideal distractor than the traditional distraction methods such as watching a film or playing a simple computer game.

The ADTs simulate real-life situations, and the possibilities are infinite. For example, until now users could choose between taking a flight, driving, downhill skiing, exploring buildings and many more activities.

In this study, peer-reviewed publications on ADTs and pain have been reviewed to determine the clinical effectiveness and importance of using these techniques as analgesic. The results suggest that the ADTs can significantly reduce the pain associated with medical treatment. The use of analgesic was clinically revealing in most cases, especially in patients with very high or unbearable levels of pain. It was found that levels of anxiety were reduced during the exposure, and the side effects, such as “simulator sickness”, were hardly observed at all.

Although some studies continue to focus mainly on the technological aspects and the effectiveness of ADTs, greater consideration is being given to psychological aspects. Several personality traits (such as absorption and dissociation) have been identified as important factors for determining the level of involvement of the users, possibly modulating the effectiveness of technological progress. For example, some patients perceive a reduction in their visual field (due to the video helmet) and a loss of awareness of the activities of the medical practitioner, as well as a loss of control, leading to an increase in anxiety and pain; other patients see it as positive that they cannot see and perceive what the medical practitioner is doing.

We can conclude that ADTs are very useful as analgesic, and can reduce the amount of analgesic administered. This new field of study can begin to move forward beyond its current initial phase by placing more emphasis on methodology and psychological aspects.

Octavi López Coronado | alfa
Further information:
http://www.uab.es

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