Injured British soldiers are to have the pain of their wounds eased with virtual-reality strolls around the Devon countryside, as part of a futuristic new treatment.
The pioneering therapy, developed using computer game technology, is intended to alleviate the pain that burns victims and amputees experience when having their wounds dressed.
Researchers from Birmingham, who are leading the project, said that more than a third of burns patients still experience moderate or severe pain when their dressings are changed – even when given morphine or other medication.
The new treatment works by distracting patients from their discomfort by immersing them in virtual re-creations of two real Devon beauty spots, Wembury and Burrator.
Patients who receive the hi-tech pain relief will view the idyllic images on a screen that flips up in front of them on their hospital bed, obscuring the part of their body being treated. And they will listen to accompanying sounds being transmitted through headphones.
In one scenario, patients will be able to use controls to take a simulated walk around the woodlands surrounding Burrator, a large reservoir in Dartmoor.
In another, they can play a game in which they navigate a speed boat between buoys on a bay in virtual Wembury, a small seaside town on the rocky Devon coastline. Further work is being done to create devices into which amputees strap their stumps to ride a pedalo which appears on screen and is powered when they move their legs.
Professor Bob Stone, who led the research team at Birmingham University, said the virtual pain-relief therapy was first trialled with child burns victims in the US.
He said: “The idea behind the technology is to distract them to refocus their attention on activities which divert their concentration away from the fact that something is happening to their limbs.
“So what we’re trying to do is to concentrate very much on the activity the individual has to engage with because at the moment our patients will be adults and in some cases they’ll be military patients.”
Professor Stone explained that he chose Wembury and Burrator, both of which were used for the filming of Steven Spielberg’s 2011 blockbuster War Horse, for their natural beauty. He said that viewing such natural environments had been proven to have a restorative effect for patients recovering in hospital from traumas including operations.
He said it was akin to people staring at a coal fire and “losing” themselves in the embers.
“People enter a highly relaxed state” he explained. “When that happens, as well as regulating such processes as respiration, digestion, circulation, and so on, the body experiences a restorative effect.
“This, to me, is where our restorative virtual environments actually provide benefit.
“We display the sights, sounds and, one day, maybe even smells to patients, helping them to immerse themselves into an alternative reality, one where they can relax – ‘lose themselves’ – or one which may evoke memories of past trips to the country or seaside.”
The virtual pain-relief project is a collaboration between Birmingham University, Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham and the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine based at QEHB.
Professor Stone said he hopes that eventually the technology will be used in hospitals to treat both military and civilian patients.
“We’re using games technology, low-cost laptops and conventional TVs,” he said. “So the cost has been kept very low so that everyone who needs to benefit from virtual reality therapy can do so.”