The other night my wife called me over to see a news story about SnowWorld. SnowWorld is a kind of virtual reality computer game, where you move through an icy world, throwing snow balls at things like penguins and snowmen. Are you excited yet? Well, you should be. The research relating to this game may be another breakthrough in the understanding of pain.
It’s been studied before – if you can get your mind off your pain, it helps. That doesn’t mean your headache is all in your head, but a distraction is indeed therapeutic. However, a recent study showed that a virtual reality world not only changes how you perceive pain, it actually changes the way the brain registers the pain signals in the first place.
This study actually tracked brain activity, but it supports earlier survey based studies. Patients in this study filled out a survey as well, and it turned out that there was a 35% drop in time thinking about the pain, and a 36% decrease in the "unpleasantness" of the pain.
The use of virtual reality, where the patient puts on a helmet allowing her to see the virtual world, has been helpful for pain (like burn treatment – hence the cold environment) and even for phobias. It may continue to develop to help people with severe head pain, but perhaps more important is what we’re learning about how the brain interprets pain signals.
David Patterson and Hunter Hoffman created SnowWorld, and you can learn more and see what it all looks like in Virtual Pain Relief. A new version of SnowWorld called "SuperSnowWorld" is now in the works.