Burn patients in the United States are being helped to escape the pain of burn injuries by immersing them in the virtual reality of a computer game during treatment.
Agony from severe burns can be one of the most intense and prolonged types of pain you can experience. And for many, the rehabilitation treatment is as painful as the initial burn.
Caleb Springer, aged 23, from Valdez in Alaska suffered second and third degree burns when he was set on fire in a motor bike accident.
Petrol spilled out of his scooter and a stray spark from a cigarette ignited it.
“I was engulfed in flames for probably two minutes. It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt, it was just excruciating. I looked down and just saw skin hanging from my legs,” he said.
His burns were so bad he was airlifted from Alaska to a specialist centre in Seattle where his rehabilitation has been helped by pioneering treatment using a virtual reality computer game.
SnowWorld, set in an icy 3D canyon, was developed by Professor Hunter Hoffman and Professor David Patterson at the University of Washington Harborview Burn Centre in Seattle.
It evolved out of the scientific advances in the last decade in understanding pain.
The aim of the game is “to make a very attention grabbing experience for the patient and basically to give them a place to escape from their pain” says Professor Hoffman.
Scientists have found many different elements can affect how we experience pain, including our emotions, environment, context and distractions.
“Because pain has such a strong psychological component to it, psychological treatments can be used to counteract the pain,” said Prof Hoffman.
“Because humans are so visually dominant wherever you’re looking typically that’s where your attention is focused.