When someone walks or rolls into the emergency department at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles with food stuck in their throat, the ER staff calls someone like Brennan Spiegel. As a gastroenterologist, food-pulling-out is something he’s uniquely equipped to do. So when he got the call one day to see a young man admitted with something caught in his esophagus, he was already mentally preparing for a trip to the operating room. But when he arrived, there was something off about the way the patient was beating his chest with his fist. “This guy’s not choking,” Spiegel thought, “he’s having a panic attack.”
So rather than calling for a gurney and an OR transfer, Spiegel reached for a pair of virtual reality goggles, pulled them over the patient’s eyes, and dialed up a scene of a beach in Hawaii. Within a few seconds the patient stopped struggling. A few minutes later he had stopped moving entirely—not even when prodded. Slightly alarmed, Spiegel began to peel the goggles off the patient’s face. Tears came pouring out. “I’ve been thinking about my whole life in there,” the patient said. “I feel like it’s spinning out of control.”
A short while later, the patient was discharged to psychiatric care. There had never been any food in his throat. The mind can play tricks like that. Luckily, VR can play tricks right back.
Cedars-Sinai is one of an increasing number of hospitals testing how virtual reality could improve patient outcomes. Spiegel is one of the clinical researchers leading that charge. He’s focusing his efforts on something much more universal than the occasional psychosomatic suffocation: pain. Over the past few years he’s conducted clinical trials that show a pair of 3-D goggles can reduce the experience of pain—all kinds, from joint injuries to cancer—by a quarter.
Now, he’s testing the technology for treating chronic pain—the kind that afflicts more than 25 million Americans. All too often, addictive painkillers are the only treatment option for those patients. And with opioids claiming the lives of nearly 100 people every day, doctors are scrambling to find non-addictive alternatives. Virtual reality might soon be one of them, if the science can show it really works.
Scientists started probing the power of VR to ease suffering more than 20 years ago. VR pioneer Hunter Hoffman, a researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle, launched the first pain studies in the early 2000s, using an eight-pound helmet hooked up to a computer the size of a small refrigerator.
Image Credit: AppliedVR