VR During Surgery Could Help With Anxiety, Study Suggests

Instead of being anxious and under anesthesia during a surgery, you can now emerge yourself in VR.

Surgery can be a terrifying process for anyone. Even the thought of having to undergo one can bring much anxiety in people. New research by Michigan State University suggests using VR, or virtual reality, during wide-awake surgery could diminish patient anxiety and bring peace.

The study, published in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, says patients who were submerged in VR content during their surgery encountered more pleasure than those who didn't.

"For patients immersed in the VR experience, we definitely saw an increase in joy," says the study's senior author and an assistant professor of surgery at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, James Clarkson. "And for patients with an anxiety disorder, we saw decreased anxiety and their joy levels significantly increased."

The team compared those with carpal tunnel release surgery with monitored anesthesia or general anesthetic to patients that underwent surgery wide awake with just local anesthesia with no tourniquet in an office environment with an option to utilize VR submerging experience. They observed 404 patients who underwent surgery in three different hospitals in Michigan between August 2017 and March 2021.

The team found that patients that had the surgery traditionally in a surgical room were twice as likely to experience a neutral or even a negative experience compared to those who had the surgery wide awake while being submerged in VR, with 23% versus 11%. Those who had the traditional surgery also had notably reduced joy, at 44% versus 20%, and heightened anxiety at 42% versus 26%.

For patients who had the surgery wide awake in an office setting, the ones that opted for VR usage had an elevated joy compared to those who didn't use the VR option (85% versus 73%). Patients with anxiety disorder opted for the VR experience and saw diminished anxiety and heightened joy.

Clarkson first got the idea of utilizing VR in the operating room in 2016 when he saw his children playing with it at home. "I had an immediate sense of 'this is exactly what my patients need,'" shares Clarkson with MSU. "I could tell them, 'I won’t put you out, but I can put you somewhere else.'"

After the idea of utilizing the VR system, he went into action and eventually started Wide Awake VR, a 'better and safer way for people to experience medical procedures without the need for sedatives.'

"VR transformed the experience of the patient," continues Clarkson. "They no longer had to starve from midnight, and they could drive the same day — have surgery and go home just like you do with the dentist."

Clarkson will present the study findings at the International Virtual Reality Health Care Association, and will also hold a presentation titled 'Digital Sedation: A New Alternative to Anesthesia' on March 10 at the SXSW Conference & Festivals.

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