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Can virtual reality replace general anesthesia?

Virtual reality has evolved from a ludic technology, to a potential therapy even in the operating theaters. One of the most successful experiences in that field was first performed at the Hospital Perpetuo Socorro, located in Gran Canaria a few years back.

Today we´re talking about a revolutionary technology, the Oculus Rift, and how this kind of tech can help nervous patients and even replace (obviously after wider researches) general anesthesia.

Virtual reality experiences in surgical procedures

During 2014, an orthopedic surgeon working in Perpetuo Socorro, called Gerardo Garcés, convinced one of his patients to perform her knee arthroscopy using an innovative technology called Oculus Rift that would alienate her from reality.

The 62 years old woman was at first so stressed out about the surgery, that she had requested to have the procedure done under general anesthesia. This is quite unadvised for patients of such an age, unless it’s very necessary.

After the explanation, she agreed but obviously with some doubts even at the moment of entering the operation room. Once the headset was placed on her face, covering her eyes and ears, she was cut out from reality and the procedure. Submerging herself into a starry sky and surrounded by Mozart’s Moonlight Sonata and other soothing lullabies.

The surgery was successfully made with local anesthesia, and the patient reported her initial anxiety quickly decreased, as she was isolated in that calming scenario.

What effects have virtual reality simulations in patients?

In the experience of this patient, a lower heart rate and blood pressure where the main results. Apart from calming patients, keeping them relaxed throughout the surgery, it would help them decrease the effects of general anesthesia on their health and bodies.

As another interesting study in virtual reality therapy, the software SnowWorld developed by the Washington College helps victims of severe burning to cope with their pain, while introducing them in an icy environment. This is quite an example of how human mind can be tricked when the senses are convinced of “another reality".

Not only in patients: Recent studies in China had those first-line medical staff responding to Covid-19 treated with virtual reality hypnosis for insomnia. The VR scenes screened according to each participant´s preference, and joined by a voice speaking slow psychological induction language lead them to relax, relieve fatigue and reduce negative emotions. Most of them responded by improving sleep quality.

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Who made this all possible?

In the first experience at the Hospital Perpetuo Socorro, was the start-up company Oculus VR the one that built the headset composed by a high-resolution screen and earphones. While the google glass software and the Oculus Rift simulation that was projected was designed by the Spanish company Droiders, specialized in smart glasses apps.
Soon after, the ground breaking procedure was covered by multiple countries newspapers and blogs, as example the article Patients wear Oculus Rift during the surgical operations (http://x-tech.am/patients-wear-oculus-rift-during-the-surgical-operations/ ) and L'Oculus Rift utilisé à l'hôpital pour détendre les patients (https://www.goglasses.fr/oculus-rift/oculus-rift-hopital-pour-detendre-patients )

What’s Oculus Rift and how it works?

Oculus Rift was the first VR headset that proved that virtual reality could be a highly immersive experience. While using the screen and earphones, it’s possible to change how the brain processes the body. And even though the person might be sitting or laying, he would experience all sorts of movements according to his brain.

Although it was first developed as a gaming technology, and was recently bought by Facebook, Oculus Rift was since the beginning involved in some clinical trials and was the precedent for other VR medical studies.

Oculus Rift has been tested in the following healthcare areas:

Medical Training

For most leaning situations, it might not be necessary to submerge in a VR environment. However, Oculus Rift has developed an innovative app as immersive medical training solution for military.

Therapy

According to another clinical study, Oculus Rifts allowed amputees with Phantom Limb Syndrome to feel their missing limb, and come in terms more quickly with their loss. Also could help them a quicker training for learning how to use prosthetics, which tends to be a long and frustrating process.

Mental Health

Exposure therapy through VR is being widely investigated, especially for treating phobias and PTS (post-traumatic stress). Studies have shown that VRT is effective in reducing PTSD symptoms, and there are current researches comparing its effectiveness with more traditional approaches.

Surgery

Although plenty of hospitals have specialized and more sophisticated surgery simulators in use, Oculus Rift does have a game that simulates surgery: Surgeon Simulator 2013. It can be used to train novices, but has its limitations, since its effectiveness decreases, as the procedure is repeated, meaning the sudents reachs a learning plateau.

Autism

VR helps autistic children to learn fine-tune motor skills, social cues and experiment real world lessons with great effectiveness, given this children´s affinity with technology, especially with Virtual Reality.
Other applications and studies in which Oculus Rift has become a valuable precedent are:
• VR in the management of perioperative stress (in patients candidates for total thyroidectomy)
• Immersive VR and Central Sensitization in people with chronic pain.
Augmented Reality Videogames for alcohol use prevention in teenagers.
• Augmented Reality Exposure System for treating cockroach phobia.

So, in conclusion, can virtual reality replace anesthesia?

Without any doubt, virtual reality can soothe nervous system and modulate the response to the pain. However, the nervous system requires more than virtual stimulation to subdue pain. So virtual reality by itself is only being used as an adjunct to anesthesia.
Although in more recent studies, the startup company HypnoVR developed and sold a software capable of “anesthetize” patients through virtual reality hypnosis. In this case, hypnosis technology would be able to guide the patient into a state in which he would no longer be able to feel a thing.

In this moment, the Strasbourg University Hospital uses this software solution in dental care procedures, implantable chamber poses and removals, and postoperative pain after scoliosis surgery.

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