The next step is to test the technology for longer periods in laboring women.
“Because that’s what the real goal is, right?” said study leader Dr. Melissa Wong, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, in a phone interview. “If we’re going to say that people should have them in the hospital, it’s not to get them through 30 minutes of contractions, it’s to help them in labor,” Wong said.
To test the VR headsets, Wong and her colleagues recruited women who were in the hospital to have their first child and who hadn’t yet taken any pain relief drugs.
All of the participants were having contractions at least every five minutes and all of them scored their pain level at between 4 and 7 on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the worst pain. Those who used VR headsets for up to 30 minutes during contractions reported an average reduction in pain level of 0.52 at the end of that period, while the control group that didn’t get the headsets reported an average increase in pain of 0.58.
Patients in the control group also had a significantly higher heart rate after the test period, which was one of the secondary outcomes Wong’s team looked at. There were no statistically meaningful differences between the groups in blood pressure or delivery outcomes.
“We believe it has a significant amount of credibility,” said Dr. Michael Foley, chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Arizona in Phoenix, who wasn’t involved in the study but who has also studied VR as a pain relief method during labour.
“I think it’s another alternative for patients other than having to take narcotics, epidurals, nitrous oxide or anything in terms of medication, if they want to go more natural, this is something that can truly augment that experience,” Foley told.
Future research will include upgraded headsets and possibly new software, as well, Wong said. The study group used a Samsung Gear VR headset paired with a Samsung smart phone, but the researchers plan to test patients with a fully integrated unit called Pico VR. It’s more advanced and more comfortable for longer periods of use, Wong said.
The visualization used in the test is called Labor Bliss, by the software developer Applied VR. Future research should test different visualizations and levels of user interaction, Wong noted. “I do feel pretty passionately that the labor visualization matters,” she said.
An ideal technology, in her view, could integrate an immersive virtual experience with signals from the woman’s body as she undergoes contractions and labour.
“Anything that’s an electric signal could trigger this. I think it would be super cool to see if we could use the electric signals of their contractions to change the scenes,” Wong said.