Virtual Reality Soothes Young Burn Patients

By E.J. Mundell
HealthDay Reporter
Thursday, December 28, 2006; 12:00 AM

THURSDAY, Dec. 28 (HealthDay News) -- A spilled pot of boiling pasta left 6-year-old Nathan Neisinger of Marysville, Wash., with such severe burns on his torso and arms that doctors initially gave him only a 60 percent chance of survival.

Nathan did survive, only to face a terrifying new reality -- three long months of painful, daily wound scrubbing and cleaning, plus arduous physiotherapy, most of it performed with a minimum of anesthesia.

Then virtual reality -- in the form of a high-tech game designed specifically for burn victims -- came to his rescue.

"It was truly a lifesaver," said Nathan's mother, Heidi. "It doesn't totally take the pain away, but we know pain has a lot to do with your mind. And when your mind is centered on something else, it's as good as anesthesia."

The game is called SnowWorld, and when young burn victims put on its high-tech helmet and get involved in playing, they lose sight of the nurses, equipment and other fearful sights and sounds around them. Instead, they're immersed in an Arctic world where they lob virtual snowballs at penguins, snowmen and roaring woolly mammoths while speeding through hairpin turns in a canyon of ice.

SnowWorld's designer, Hunter Hoffman, the director of the University of Washington's Virtual Reality Analgesia Research Center in Seattle, explained that burn victims often re-experience the sensation of getting burned as their wounds are handled during daily care.

"So, our idea was to create this 'cool' scenario -- imagery of snowflakes, an icy world of snowmen and penguins -- things that are the antithesis of fire," he said.

Pediatric burn victims, especially, need some form of non-medicinal pain control during their treatment. That's because methods commonly used in adult patients -- drugs like morphine, or artificially induced comas -- are simply too risky for use in children.

"In fact, all they could give Nathan was a light dose of oxycontin," Heidi Neisinger said.

Hoffman knew from his own research, and others' as well, that pain requires sustained attention from the brain. He figured, then, that distraction might help ease it. That's the theory behind SnowWorld, the first-ever use of virtual reality to help treat severe pain.

Hoffman, a psychologist, teamed up with Seattle-based virtual reality designers Ari Hollander and Howard Rose to perfect the latest version of the game.

"Designing a great virtual world is all about maximizing presence," Hollander explained. "Trying to make you feel like you are reallyinthat virtual environment."

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