Patients immersed in virtual reality during surgery may require less anesthetic

The VR group requested significantly lower levels of the sedative propofol – in this case used to numb pain in the hand – than the non-VR group. They received 125.3 milligrams per hour, compared to an average of 750.6 milligrams per hour during the study, as described in PLUS ONE. The VR group also left the unit recovering after anesthesia more quickly, spending an average of 63 minutes versus 75 minutes for the non-VR group.

The researchers believe that those in the VR group required lower levels of sedation because they were more distracted than those who did not have virtual visual stimuli. However, the team acknowledges, it’s possible that the VR group may have undergone surgery already believing VR would be effective. This possibility should be explored in future experiments.

Reducing the amount of anesthesia a patient receives can help shorten the length of hospital stay and reduce the risk of complications, and can save money on the cost of the drugs themselves.

The team now plans to conduct a subsequent similar trial in patients undergoing hip and knee surgery to further explore whether virtual reality can help manage intraoperative anxiety, says Adele Faruki, assistant professor of anesthesiology at the University of Colorado, who led the study.

There is a growing body of evidence that virtual reality can be a useful aid in surgery, says Brenda Wiederhold, co-founder of the Center for Virtual Reality Medical, who was not involved in the study. However, medical experts will need to monitor patients for internet sickness, a form of motion sickness caused by virtual reality in some people.

“We have a lot of use cases for virtual reality and surgeries, such as cesarean deliveries, pre- and post-cardiac surgeries,” she says.

Virtual reality may be beneficial not only during medical procedures but also afterward, according to Wiederhold, by decreasing the risk of chronic pain. “This is very exciting,” she says.

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