Virtual reality world first helps pregnant women cope with painful procedure

A Monash University (Australia) trial has shown the promising potential of virtual reality to help
women cope with pain during a common procedure to reposition their breech baby in preparation
for delivery.

In a world first trial led by Dr Vinayak Smith and Ritesh Warty of Monash University’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 50 patients at Monash Women’s were fitted with VR glasses during their procedure.

The immersive technology requires patients to watch lanterns launch into the sky and click on the headset to light the lanterns before they burst. The VR content was developed by Singapore-based digital media company Alo VR.

External Cephalic Version (ECV) is a procedure affecting around 3% of pregnancies. At around 37 weeks gestation, the baby is manually flipped over by the obstetrician to face head down. It can be a painful procedure and no pain relief is currently provided in routine care.

The device was very well received among patients who believed VR should be offered to all women undergoing ECV and that they would recommend it to their friends undergoing the procedure.

The potential analgesic benefits of the technology is growing in this emerging field of research with previous studies stating it could reduce pain by up to 25%. It’s been proven safe and effective in various fields of medicine around the world including for burn patients, paediatric oncology, and dental treatment.

Dr Smith said the virtual reality technique worked by providing a distracting experience designed to reduce the perception of pain.

“The trial is the first in the world to use virtual reality for pain management in antenatal patients,” Dr Smith said.

“VR is said to work in two ways to reduce pain – through distraction where pain impulses are
blocked or slowed from entering the brain, and on a neurobiological level by reducing the
perception of pain experienced by the brain.”

Dr Smith said the study would pave the way for testing the device in alternative obstetric
scenarios such as in early labour. A trial will also get underway in March, testing the beneficial analgesic effect of VR on pain following laparoscopic surgery.

“If we continue to see the analgesic benefits of virtual reality, it could be adopted more broadly by hospitals in procedures to reduce pain and anxiety for patients. It may even reduce the need for pain relief medications,” Dr Smith said.

Monash University
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