Can Virtual Reality Make An Effective Anesthetic?

Steve Anderson : End Game
Steve Anderson
The Video Store Guy
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Can Virtual Reality Make An Effective Anesthetic?

We've considered plenty of possibilities of late when it comes to virtual reality systems, particularly the Oculus Rift. We've readily seen the gaming applications, which have long been in place since the earliest days of “Dactyl Nightmare.” We've considered the idea of virtual tourism, and the ability to experience any city, any attraction on Earth from an easy chair. But a new concept suggests that virtual reality might serve a whole new purpose: as a kind of partial anesthetic.

The idea recently came into play as part of an experiment at the Perpetuo Socorro hospital in Gran Canaria in Spain. While there, a woman named Josefa Ramirez went in for a knee operation, a prospect that would have anyone unnerved. Ramirez, not surprisingly, wanted a full anesthetic, but the doctors came back with another idea. Instead of the full anesthetic, doctors instead offered another choice as part of this experiment: a numbing agent—a “local” anesthetic—and an Oculus Rift. Most wouldn't even entertain the concept, but this one involved something special.

The Rift portrayed a night sky, a complete starscape backed up by classical music—Debussy's Clair de Lune and Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, among others--, and given the nature of the Rift, the outside world was effectively gone during that time. The local anesthetic ensured that Ramirez would feel nothing at the site of the operation, and the music and starscapes the Oculus Rift generated in turn would distract from the sights and sounds of having one's knee cut open.

But how well did it work? Reports suggest that it worked, and worked quite well. Ramirez said of her own experience that, eventually, she “...relaxed and forgot where (she) was.” With no pain from the operation, and no sights and sounds to reinforce it, the experience left her, as the Pink Floyd song might describe, “comfortably numb.”

Now, naturally, this approach won't always work. Somehow I don't think open heart surgery could be done this way. But consider the leg and arm and maybe even hip surgeries that could be done with just a local and a good solid distraction. This isn't the first time it's happened, either; a virtual reality environment called SnowWorld was put to use at the University of Washington to deal with burn victims, and the reports suggest that SnowWorld's frigid plains help burn victims improve against pain.

It's an amazing idea, and moreover, it just adds to the power of virtual reality. Already it was a winner as a gaming tool, and as a communications mechanism it was top-notch. A tourism aid, a training tool, and now, an actual medical device, used to let the power of the patient's imagination go to work and distract from horrors that previously would have required utter unconsciousness to bypass. This is a technology with too many benefits and too few drawbacks; it's likely going to prove a winner before it's all said and done, and any future competitors to the Rift will have to compete on this front: can it replace the Rift in every sense it's currently being used?