The use of videos and virtual reality goggles, now being used in some dental offices as a way of helping patients better cope with sometimes unpleasant visits, is also helping ease the pain associated with more serious conditions.

Treating Burn Patients

Hunter Hoffman, a pain expert at the University of Washington in Seattle, recently completed a study of burn patients who used virtual reality devices that allowed them to enter a computer-generated fantasyland as they underwent painful wound care.

"Usually, during procedures they are just thinking about their pain and how much it hurts," he says. However, "we found very dramatic reductions in pain-related brain activity when they were in virtual reality, compared with when they were not, Hoffman says, with patients generally enthusiastic about the relief virtual reality provides.

He believes the devices distract brain activity away from neurological pain centers. That's what's making it work so well—it's grabbing attention, making it go to another place."

Treating Cancer Patients

The spirits of cancer patients undergoing stressful chemotherapy may also get a lift from video-generated virtual worlds.

In three studies of cancer patients of various ages, Susan Schneider, a cancer care specialist at Duke University Medical School, found that the use of video headsets seemed to take patients' minds away from the fear and anxiety of chemotherapy, allowing them to escape for a while from reality

"Some folks relax because it's taking their mind off things," Schneider says. "We see their blood pressure dropping, they appear to have calmer breathing. Others get excited by the virtual reality scenarios they can be solving a mystery or deep sea diving."

The People Connection

People tolerate pain better when a woman causes it than when a man does. They also feel pain more intensely when they don't have a sense of control—for instance, at the dentist. Surroundings also affect pain perception—hospital-like smells and the presence of medical instruments make pain harder to tolerate.

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