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A World Away From Pain

Virtual Reality Helps Lessen Need for Pain Medication at St. Louis Shriners Hospital

Physical therapists firmly stretched Karley’s surgically lengthened right leg, trying to get the last 15 degrees of bend out of her knee. Meanwhile, Karley was in outer space chasing puppies.

“She’s not as tense,” said Karley’s mom, Kayla, as she looked at her daughter on the treatment table, virtual reality goggles running the Space Pups app placed comfortably over her head. “It distracts the mind and she focuses on something else, so the pain’s not as bad.”

Distraction and pain relief are the two main reasons child life therapists at Shriners Hospital for Children — St. Louis use VR goggles. The hospital currently has two pairs, one it is leasing and the other which was donated through the Starlight Children’s Foundation.

The St. Louis Shriners Hospital staff uses VR for a variety of procedures, the most common of which is blood draws. Instead of fearing a needle, kids immerse themselves swimming with dolphins, walking through a forest or throwing balls at bear cubs using only their gaze.

“When the draw is over they say, ‘It’s done? You actually did it?’” said Laura Teague, senior recreational therapist. “They don’t even know we started.”

While the apps might be fun and games, the science behind the use of virtual reality is anything but.

“These are specifically made for hospitals and the needs we’re trying to meet,” Teague said. “We’re into non-pharmacological ways to help kids reduce pain.”

Indeed, multiple scientific studies show a connection between virtual reality use and pain management. Results published in 2019 detail a study at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Half of the 120 patients in the study were given VR goggles with a variety of relaxing and meditative experiences from which to choose. The other half were instructed to tune their in-room TVs to the health and wellness channel, which included guided-relaxation content such as yoga and meditation.

The findings showed the on-demand use of VR resulted in statistically significant improvements in pain compared to the TV group, with patients in the VR group averaging 1.7 points lower on the pain scale. The results were even better for those in the worst pain. Those with the most severe baseline pain – rated seven or above – listed their pain as three points lower with VR than those with TV.

"Virtual reality is a mind-body treatment that is based in real science," said Brennan Spiegel, M.D., director of Cedars-Sinai’s Health Service Research, who brought VR to the medical center. "It does more than just distract the mind from pain but also helps to block pain signals from reaching the brain, offering a drug-free supplement to traditional pain management.

But for patients such as Karley – a 12-year-old from Owensboro, Kentucky, who has been a patient at the St. Louis Shriners Hospital since she was an infant – the word you most often hear when their VR experience is over is much simpler: “Cool.”

Karley wearing VR goggles during therapy

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