Patients visiting the ER in Saint-Joseph Hospital in Paris, France can now opt to use VR to increase their tolerance to pain and decrease anxiety.
The hospital is among the first to test immersive VR pain management techniques created by a start-up called Healthy Mind, which can in some cases replace pain medication altogether.
“They are currently using [virtual reality] in emergencies for multiple painful procedures and have, in many cases, suppressed the use of anaesthesia,” said Reda Khouadra, the 24-year-old creator, CEO and co-founder of the project.
In the passive version, participants can enter one of three environments during their five to fifty-five minute treatments: a serene Buddhist zen garden, a lush forest filled with animals, or a snowy mountainside.
Various sounds have been included, each created using proven methods of musical therapy and hypnosis. Along with custom audio, Healthy Mind reach out to other medical professionals when it came to designing the color, speed and movement styles of each guided journey.
“The goal here was to help the patient attain a cardiac coherence which is a very precise and powerful breathing frequency as well as the most optimized state of relaxation,” Khouadra said.
The second type of VR immersive therapy that Healthy Mind is testing out is an interactive mode which adds cognitive elements by allowing the patient to interact with the environment and participate in activities like music or painting. This allows the patient to “solve different enigmas aimed to target concentration and memory” which have an even more powerful effect, according to Khouadra.
Currently, the team is testing the passive mode primarily for surgeries, anaesthesia and other scenarios in which the patient is unable to move, but many more cases are currently being planned for testing on both modes in coming months.
Patients are utilizing VR during painful or intimidating procedures involving stitches, burn treatment, and surgery. “Depending on the patient and the application, one mode or the other will be preferable,” Khouadra said.
Healthy Mind is testing out both methods at Saint-Joseph and other hospitals in the APHP (Paris’s largest hospital group), and the young company is also in talks with hospitals across France, Switzerland and the U.S.
With the project already providing impressive results, it comes as no surprise that a Saint-Joseph doctor took an interest in VR pain management. Their mission statement includes an assertion that “therapeutic and technological innovation is a decisive contributor to progress in healthcare.”
Khouadra’s idea was the culmination of a childhood spent creating 3D models and landscapes to soothe his great-aunt, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when he was young.
“Every time she saw one of my creations, she was both filled with emotions and soothed at the same time, it’s kind of hard to explain,” he said. “At that time, I didn’t connect the dots, but it was only years after with the emergence of virtual reality that I discovered the potential of emotions and cognition in anxiety and pain relief.”
As an engineering student, Khoudara met the team that would support his idea of using VR immersion therapy to deal with pain mitigation and form the Healthy Mind.
Experimentation with VR in medicine is on the rise, and has been used elsewhere in pain relief or as psychological treatment for PTSD or other trauma. A Nordic Insurance Agency called Gjensidige Insurance has even created Birthual Reality, a full 360-degree VR experience of human birth to help mothers prepare for childbirth, according to cnet.