Briana Nathaniel has sickle cell disease which can cause excruciating pain. She is is part of a study at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland that is using virtual reality to distract children with the disease from the pain that so often comes with it.
The 25 children in the study put on the VR headset and are transported into a virtual underwater world with dolphins and whales. The VR game has been designed by Simon Robertson of KindVR whose mission is to help patients reduce pain and stress by using VR software.
“I wanted to transport patients outside the hospital. I wanted it to feel magical, but also grounded in reality,” he said. “Outer space or a roller coaster might be too intense.”
“Often I’m dealing with patients who are experiencing a 9 out of 10 pain. And they’re on a lot of drugs,” Robertson said. “I want to make sure I’m not adding any stress on top of that.”
Sickle cell disease is genetic disorder that causes blood cells to form in a sickle shape instead of the usual doughnut shape. The sickle-shaped cells disrupt the normal flow of blood and can cause sudden and extreme bursts of intense pain.
For children like Briana who have the disease, managing the pain is incredibly important. Doctors have been using distraction techniques for a long time, but the effectiveness of VR as a distraction tool is surprising many in the medical profession.
Dr. Anne Marsh, director of the pediatric sickle cell program at the hospital commented that “It’s amazing. You walk into the room, and they’re like a different kid for these 30 minutes,”
Pain is essentially a stimulation of the brain so by overloading the brain with even more stimulation form a rich virtual reality environment, the effect of the pain stimulus can be felt much less, providing much needed relief for children like Briana.
While virtual reality is not yet able to remove the pain completely, it is very encouraging to see that it does provide relief for these brave children who certainly deserve it.