Researchers used VR to put a woman on a beach during childbirth to help manage her pain without drugs

Taking the pain away.
Taking the pain away.
Image: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino
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Virtual reality’s ability to distract people from pain could redefine child birth.

Erin Martucci was able to block out much of her labor pain by gazing at a serene beach landscape with waterfalls instead. Once she wore the Samsung Gear VR headset, her virtual experience was peppered with instructions like “focus on the birds” and “remember to breathe” delivered by a pre-recorded narrator. By the time her gynecologist took the headset off and pulled Martucci back into the New York hospital room, her baby’s head had already started to show. And with that delivery, Martucci became the first woman to use virtual reality (VR)—alone, without drugs—for pain management during labor, the Guardian reported.

The doctor was able to monitor Martucci’s contractions remotely. It was only when she showed signs of intensifying pain—grunting and writhing—that he went in to check if she was ready to push. “The patient has to be a little bit motivated and not someone who is going to be that scared of the pain,” Ralph Anderson, Martucci’s gynecologist, told the Guardian. As distracting as VR might be, it’s still not like an epidural, the pain relief injection to the spine that many women choose to make birthing easier.

The concept of distraction isn’t novel: Medical experts have always encouraged patients to regulate their breathing and find a focal point during contractions. VR might help some women find that focus, and offer a promising drug-free alternative to epidurals, which come with the risk of side effects. For instance, one in eight women will likely experience a drop in blood pressure, which can alter blood flow to the placenta and reduce the oxygen available to the baby. Sometimes, an epidural can also slow down labor.

Another common choice is cesarean birth, especially in the US. Currently, nearly 32.2% of American women opt for C-sections—that’s double the 10 to 15% national range the World Health Organization recommends. C-sections are relatively painless during the birthing process, but the recovery period is much longer, and some women experience lingering pain and soreness.

If VR can truly bring pain relief to natural birth, it could help bring C-section rates down.

VR has the potential to suppress pain in other medical procedures, too. “Because of its immersive and distractive nature, researchers believe that VR may be safer and more effective than traditional analgesic methods,” researchers from Shanghai’s Tongji University wrote in a June 2016 evaluation of the use of VR for pain management.

Research has shown that VR increases people’s threshold for pain by distracting them. For example, a paper in the Clinical Journal of Pain reported a study where  11 burn-injured patients were treated in a hospital, and immersed in VR for half the time period of their treatment. All 11 reported a significant drop in pain while in VR.

In another case study with dental patients, VR appeared to reduce the pain to a much greater extent than focusing a movie did. The multi-sensory experience has also been used to help patients overcome anxiety, distract women from chemotherapy, and reduce pediatric pain during IV placement.

Then again, there may not be as many takers for a technology that makes you dissociate almost completely from the birth of your child—which for many is one of the most precious moments of their lives.