NEW YORK • When Deona Duke woke up from a medically induced coma to begin recovering from burns that covered almost a third of her body, one of her treatments was hurling snowballs at penguins.
The 13-year-old was set on fire when a bonfire exploded on her and her friend. To prevent infection, burn victims need their bandages changed and dead skin scraped away. Sometimes, even morphine is not enough to make that tolerable.
At the Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston, Deona's doctors gave her a virtual reality (VR) headset. Slipping it on, she was immersed in "SnowWorld", an icy landscape where she got to lob snow at snowmen and igloos.
The Texas hospital is one of a few trying out VR to relieve pain. Deona said: "When I first tried it, it distracted me from what they were doing so it helped with the pain."
It is still a new and experimental approach, but proponents of VR say it can be an effective treatment for everything from intense pain to Alzheimer's disease to arachnophobia to depression.
The idea is that the worst pain can be alleviated by manipulating the way the human mind works: The more you focus on the pain, the worse it feels. Swamp the brain with an overload of sensory inputs - such as with the immersion in a virtual world - and its capacity to process pain, to be conscious of it, goes down.
In research done at Shriners by psychologists Hunter Hoffman and Walter Meyer, and similar work done by Dr Dave Patterson at Harborview Burn Centre in Seattle, patients reported less discomfort.
Dr Hoffman examined magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of patients' brains, which showed they actually experienced less pain. "I was very surprised by it. I didn't have the expectation of it working."
Proponents of VR are quick to point out that it could have a big benefit over drugs, which can lead to tolerance over prolonged use and sometimes addiction.
The economics may make VR an attractive experiment for some hospitals. Hospital care takes up up to about 30 per cent of the US$3 trillion (S$4 trillion) in US annual healthcare spending, making it the most costly category of treatment.
The price of a headset and software is tiny compared to the expense of keeping a patient in the hospital for an extra day. For example, the Oculus Rift Headset retails at US$599, while HTC's Vive costs US$799. To get them to work, you need only a PC that costs about US$999 to run the software.
So if there is a chance that VR could lead to an early discharge, it may make sense for a hospital to spend on the hardware, said Dr Brennan Spiegel, a gastroenterologist at Cedars-Sinai, who is also director of health services research at the Los Angeles hospital.
But VR's effectiveness still has to be proven, particularly when trying to combat chronic pain. Does the effect last when the headset comes off?
"We know that relaxation techniques like hypnosis, yoga and meditation decrease your perception of pain, so VR has a lot of promise, but it's too early for it to be the standard of care," said Dr Houman Danesh, director of integrative pain management at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. "It's a very young technology."