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Virtual reality has already been shown to help relieve pain among children getting blood drawn, burn victims receiving wound care, and hospital patients in general. Now, several hospitals are testing whether women in labor can benefit from virtual reality as an alternative, or in addition to, epidurals and other pain-management options.
In the United Kingdom, the University Hospital of Wales, in Cardiff, is carrying out a trial in which some pregnant women will be given virtual reality headsets during labor. It's not clear how many women are participating in the trial, but if researchers find that the headsets do reduce labor pain, they could be rolled out across Wales, according to the BBC.
Meanwhile, Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles conducted a study in which women in labor were invited to put on virtual reality goggles for 30 minutes and rate their pain before and after. The virtual reality scenes include breathing exercises, positive affirmations, mindfulness elements, and supportive phrases, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year. One woman quoted from the study reported her pain dropped from a seven to a three on a 10-point scale.
And a study of 27 women – led by researchers at the University of Michigan and University of Washington Harborview Medical Center, in Seattle – found that patients exposed to virtual reality for 10 minutes during early labor reported significantly less pain immediately after using the devices. The program included relaxing music and a scuba-diving simulation whereby women could pretend to take underwater photos.
Stanford University and the nonprofit health system Banner Health, in Phoenix, have also conducted trials using virtual reality during labor, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Researchers believe virtual reality may distract women from the pain of contractions, since the brain can only focus on so much at once.
"It's like self-hypnosis or guided meditation on steroids," Dr. Melissa Wong, a fellow at Cedars-Sinai's Maternal-Fetal Medicine program, said in an interview last year about the trial there. "In essence, VR magnifies the mind-body connection, and we know the mind can be very influential in healing and how pain is perceived."
The technology is still in the research stage, so don't expect to have virtual reality headsets available to you if you'll be giving birth within the next few months. Also, it's unclear how much this type of service would cost even if it does get approved for wider use. The headsets used in the Cardiff trial reportedly cost almost $5,000 a year.
In the meantime, there are several tried-and-tested ways to ease the pain of childbirth. These include:
- Spinal block
- Combined spinal/epidural
- Systemic pain medication
- Pregnancy massage
- Positions to ease labor pain
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