Research underway to use virtual reality to control pain

Virtual reality is a state-of-the-art technology that allows users to be transformed into a virtual world.

"At the end of the game, you take off your goggles and you're just, wow. I was fighting drones in a space station just a second ago, and now I'm here in this arena and I can see my friends, and you can be happy you're safe and survived a zombie apocalypse," said JP Mullan, General Manager of Octane Raceway.

Virtual reality, or VR, is a computer technology that uses headsets to generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations that simulates a user's physical presence in a virtual environment. The Velocity VR gaming area at Octane Raceway allows people to escape reality and become actual characters in the game.

"It's 360 degrees. There's 64 cameras in the arena," said Mullan. "You can see up, down. You can crouch, you can hide behind things, you can run around different areas. You can work together as a team, which is really big, and you can communicate with each other about fighting off the zombies and the drones. You can have someone being a sniper, someone being on the floor or someone being a team leader. It's great for group activities or team building as well."

At Velocity, one can kill zombies or shoot down drones in a space station, in the free-roaming, multi-player virtual reality arena.

"It's truly immersive," said Mullan. "The graphics are amazing. It's really smooth when you transfer form one room to the next. You can see other competitors in the game as well as the walls in the game and it's truly immersive. When you feel like you're in the zombie survival game, you're in an alley way with zombies coming at you at all directions. In the singularity game you go through a space station and there's a walk way where you can actually, it feels like you're crossing a bridge and going up and down an elevator. When you're in the game, just the full sensory of the audio, the video, it's amazing."

The out-of-this-world technology is not just for gaming. Medical professionals are now taking notice of the technology's potential role in pain relief. At Banner University Medical Center Phoenix, a pilot program has been launched that will offer VR to expectant mothers in labor.

"Patients will be randomized. They don't get to choose," said Dr. Michael Foley with Banner Medical Center Phoenix. "They get randomized to getting this or not, but it's not standard of care at all according. That's why we're looking to find evidence to see if there's a potential opportunity to make the experience better."

Foley said although virtual reality can't physically take away pain, it could help.

"This is immersion therapy," said Foley. "With virtual reality tends to increase the DHEA, the wellness hormone, and really is a diversion and a new experience that allows your mind to compensate for the pain that's coming in, in a way that you tend to need less medication. Having virtual reality has been allowing women to be diverted enough to be able to go to this experience to have control over the pain, so they require less medication. In no way is it going to eliminate it, but it is going to give you much like the concentrated Lamaze techniques and breathing techniques that we've been using for decades on decades. This allows a different sort of experience to put you in that focus to get the same body reaction that those things did in the past."

VR will virtually take a delivering mother out of her hospital room, leaving her laying on a beach or taking a meditation class all while listening to soothing sounds.

"Imagine all of a sudden, you're immersed in this fantasy world and 360 degrees all around, up and down, around, there are things to see," said Foley. "Imagine yourself standing on a beach and hearing all of the sounds of the beach, looking around and seeing the mountains. Looking down at your feet and seeing the footprints you just made in the sand and hearing the ocean and the waves and the sand retracting, and really kind of being in the experience."

VR is completely drug free, and could even help expecting mothers skip pain meds altogether, which is becoming a popular trend among women, according to Foley.

"I think that all of those other types of medications have been around on decades on decades are not going to be supplanted by virtual reality," said Foley. "It's not going to come in and be the fix of everything. I do though think it's going to augment pain control. It may in some women who are at that border, that I really don't want all of this stuff, but I'm really having trouble right now I just need a little something. This might be the thing."