How virtual reality helps ease pain, anxiety

December 16, 2019 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health
Categories: Healthy Driven Life

Edward Hospital is helping patients escape their pain with a pair of goggles and software that lets them hit the beach, gaze at mountains, swim with dolphins or walk the streets of London.

The virtual reality (VR) goggles, used by pediatric and adult oncology patients, offer patients an immersive experience that helps them calm down and eases their pain and anxiety.

Though the use of virtual technology to address pain is relatively new, initial studies indicate patients who have undergone VR therapy report less pain.

A 2018 University of California San Francisco study of 30 pediatric patients with sickle cell disease showed the patients’ reported pain levels dropped after a 15-minute session of virtual reality therapy.

"It's a different approach," Rachel Condon, a medical oncology nurse at Edward Hospital, said in a recent news article. "It's just a nice thing to have to not go to medicine, and it works — we've seen it with our own eyes.”

In one instance, Condon had a patient who came to the hospital with her arms flailing wildly. She was believed to be having tremors, but it was difficult to determine what was happening because the woman could not stay still. Once given a set of VR goggles, the woman’s wild movements calmed and Condon could then see the slight tremors.

“We’ve had such good results with patients,” said Tina Bobo, a pain management specialist and coordinator of Edward’s virtual reality program. “We’re using it with pain, anxiety and distraction entertainment.”

Edward Hospital began using VR therapy two years ago with three sets of goggles provided through a grant from Child’s Play, a game industry charity that helps improve the lives of hospitalized children. Today, Edward has six sets of goggles, three for adult patients and three for pediatric patients.

Grants from the Edward Foundation, City of Naperville and Northwestern Mutual Insurance Foundation help cover the annual subscription cost for each set of goggles.

The pediatric goggles offer child-friendly underwater scenes and have been used on patients with pain or to ease the stress of procedures like having an IV inserted for the first time. A program designed to help make the sights and sounds of an MRI less stressful for children is also available through the virtual reality goggles, Bobo said.

Adults in the hospital’s oncology department can use the VR goggles during chemotherapy or other procedures. Through 28 different virtual reality programs, patients are virtually transported to a variety of locations, such as the beach, a mountainside or the streets of London or Vienna.

“It can be a very stressful time for patients, and this helps relieve their anxiety and gives them a distraction,” Bobo said. “It’s a way to offer them something in addition to the regular care that we offer.”

Hospital staff are tracking patients’ self-reported pain levels before and after a virtual reality session. Volunteers also sit with patients during their virtual reality session.

VR therapy is currently offered to adults three days a week on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Pediatric VR therapy is available Monday through Friday.

Bobo said she is actively recruiting volunteers to help make the goggles available to adult patients five days a week. To volunteer, please contact the Edward Hospital Volunteer Office at 630-527-3189.

Learn more about pediatric services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Learn more about cancer care at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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