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Experiencing Pain? Swimming Virtually Dolphins can Whisk it Away

Virtual reality is nothing new. However, with more and more people searching for alternatives to pills, VR is rapidly attracting attention.

If you are immersed in warm water in a lagoon illuminated with sunlight and swim in it, how would you feel? That is exactly what Tom Norris tried when he wore his VR headset.

He said that he felt he was actually there. The 70-year-old ex-military man, living in Los Angeles with his wife, stated that he felt a great sense of relaxation, pleasure and peace as the dolphins swam by and frolicked.

The headset takes about 10 minutes to have a full impact.

Norris experienced chronic pain via his back, spine and hips from injuries that took place years ago.

Since the day he was introduced to VR, there has been no looking back. Besides swimming with dolphins, he also tried other VR experiences like walking in the wilderness.

Courtesy of Cedars Sinai/Screenshot by NPR

He went on to say that the headset made his pain more tolerable and diverted his attention. He said that he made use of several tools to cope. But he found VR to be more helpful. For him, the feel-good thing and ease that came from a virtual swim with the dolphins lingered for many days.

Norris is not the only person basking in this wonderful experience. A study was published in August in PLOS ONE, a journal. It was the most recent document on the pain-reducing capacity of virtual and immersive reality.

Brennan Spiegel, the director of Cedars-Sinai Health Services Research in Los Angeles and a physician, explained that VR has altered the way people think about pain.

He also explained about the research, which was conducted in a hospital where the participants were being treated for various reasons. While some had orthopedic pain, others were experiencing cancer-related pain. The researchers had divided the patients into 2 groups. One group was given Samsung Oculus headsets, fitted to a phone having a VR app. The participants had the liberty to choose from 21 experiences. They could use the VR devices for as many times as they wanted to but had to aim for 3 sessions daily, each of 10 minutes. The other group was allowed to watch a wellness channel on television for as long as they preferred.

Spiegel stated that the researchers found VR to be 3 times more effective in decreasing pain than watching TV. On a 0 to 10 scale, VR users saw a 2-point drop in pain, while TV watchers experienced a half-point reduction in pain.

How VR helps to bring down the pain is yet to be delineated clearly. However, pain experts believe that mental distraction is one of the major factors. As the mind gets deeply engaged in an immersive experience, it cannot perceive stimuli outside the field of attention. So, Spiegel and his partners opined that the mind focusses on a particular aspect when that aspect captures the attention, and all other things become non-existent, at least for the time being.

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