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Start-up tests virtual reality as drugless alternative for pain relief

  • Three graduates have created a virtual-reality program being used in France to relax patients and increase their tolerance of pain.
  • Patients transported to other places by VR goggles become more tolerant of minor but painful procedures.
  • The Healthful Mind startup is not the first to use the technology in this way, but the founders will present the program to Microsoft.
A nurse treats a patient wearing the 3D therapeutic virtual reality headset developed by Healthy Mind start-up, at the emergency service department of the Saint-Joseph Hospital in Paris, France, June 7, 2018.
Philippe Wojazer | Reuters
A nurse treats a patient wearing the 3D therapeutic virtual reality headset developed by Healthy Mind start-up, at the emergency service department of the Saint-Joseph Hospital in Paris, France, June 7, 2018.

The very thought of visiting a hospital emergency department is stressful enough for many people, even without the discomfort or pain of an examination or treatment.

Enter an immersive virtual-reality program created by three graduates being used in France to relax patients and even increase their tolerance of pain — without resorting to drugs.

"What we offer is a contemplative world where the patient goes on a guided tour, in interactive mode, to play music, do a bit of painting or work out a riddle," said Reda Khouadra, one of the 24-year-olds behind the project.

As patients are transported by chunky VR goggles into a three-dimensional world of Japanese zen gardens or snowy hillsides, they become more tolerant of minor but painful procedures such as having a cut stitched, a burn treated, a urinary catheter inserted or a dislocated shoulder pushed back into place.

"The virtual reality project ... enables us to offer patients a technique to distract their attention and curb their pain and anxiety when being treated in the emergency room," said Olivier Ganansia, head of the emergency department at the Saint-Joseph Hospital in Paris.

"I think in 10 years, virtual reality won't even be a question any more, and will be used in hospitals routinely."

The Healthy Mind startup is not a world first but has landed a $20,000 prize from a university in Adelaide, Australia — which will now pay for the three founders to present their project at Microsoft's headquarters in the U.S. city of Seattle.