Patients Wearing VR Headsets During Surgery Requested Less Sedation

Experiments with virtual reality have revealed it could be an effective tool for reducing the amount of pain, and therefore anesthetic required during surgery.

As MIT Technology Review reports(Opens in a new window), researchers at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston carried out an experiment on a group of adult patients undergoing hand surgery. The 34 patients were randomly split into two equal groups, with one group asked to wear a VR headset and noise-canceling headphones during their surgery.

The headsets offered the patients a choice of 360-degree views of a forest, mountaintop, peaceful meadow, videos on a starry sky backdrop, or guided meditation while the surgery was carried out. The surprising result of the experiment was that the VR group requested significantly lower amounts of sedative(Opens in a new window) compared to the non-VR patients.

Those without access to the headset averaged 750.6 milligrams of the sedative propofol, compared to the VR group averaging just 125.3 milligrams. In fact, only four of the 17 patients in the VR group requested any propofol at all, where as everyone in the other group asked for the sedative. However, “significantly more patients in the VR group received supplemental local anesthesia by the surgeon than in the control group” pointing to the importance of the preoperative nerve block. There was another positive outcome, though: the discharge time for the VR patients was greatly reduced.

Brian P. O’Gara, MD, MPH, an anesthesiologist in the Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine at BIDMC, said “Using VR immersion, the potential harms of unnecessary sedation can be avoided without compromising patient comfort during hand surgery. Furthermore, we saw that VR group patients were discharged from the PACU 22 minutes earlier than control patients. A reduction in PACU stay could help optimize perioperative efficiency if the VR technique were used more widely.”

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The researchers believe those patients wearing the VR headset may simply be more distracted from having access to the visual/audio stimulation, but also admit they may have just assumed the VR would help reduce the pain. Further testing is required to confirm it works, and further trials involving hip and knee surgery are planned.

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