A pod of friendly dolphins approaches a shipwreck. Sea turtles and tropical fish swim together. A hulking but gentle whale glides overhead. In this calming ocean ecosystem, there isn’t a shark in sight.
This is the world kids are immersed in when they slip on a virtual reality headset designed by KindVR, a Bay Area–based virtual reality company. Using a controller, they can explore sunken ruins, blow colorful bubbles, or simply watch and wait for sea creatures to approach them while soothing music plays in the background. Kids are using the sets to endure severe pain and uncomfortable medical procedures.
Virtual reality has been used in pain management for years, mostly to distract victims of severe burns from agonizing dressing changes. But as the cost of virtual reality headsets has gotten dramatically cheaper — some now retail for as little as $40 — more hospitals can afford to try out the technology to help the young pain patients who need it most. Medical centers like UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin are using virtual reality experiences, like the ones developed by KindVR, to alleviate stress and anxiety during pain episodes and medical procedures. The goal is to make the experience of pain less traumatic for young patients and, in doing so, reduce the need for opioids among children.
Virtual reality is thought to help patients manage pain by giving them something else to focus on as they undergo an invasive test or uncomfortable treatment. Previous studies have shown that distraction — like watching cartoons and listening to music — can help manage pain in children and adolescents, especially for procedures involving needles.
What we think is going on is that virtual reality is so immersive that it is filling up your brain with lots of different sensory signals.
Researchers think virtual reality is especially effective because the experience is so much more immersive than other mediums, like listening to music…