You could sleep through your next surgery in VR

You could sleep through your next surgery in VR

Can virtual reality reduce patients’ anxiety during surgery and save on sedatives? A study suggests it could.

New technologies are also finding their way into medicine. Surgeons train in VR or prepare for complex operations, such as separating conjoined twins. In the future, patients could also benefit from VR headsets in the operating room.

Surgery is usually performed under local anaesthesia. Doctors block a local nerve, but patients remain fully conscious during the operation.

To prevent them from having anxiety or panic attacks during surgery, they are put in a twilight state with sedatives. This can sometimes have unwanted side effects.

Does VR prevent anxiety in the operating room?

As an anaesthesiologist, Professor Adeel Faruki of the University of Colorado School of Medicine has to be constantly alert to patients’ pain and anxiety. Most sedatives are safe, he says, but they slow breathing and raise blood pressure.

For one study, Faruki and a team of researchers looked at 40 patients who had undergone hand surgery. The idea: Why not use virtual reality to distract patients and reduce their anxiety without using sedatives?

The results of the Colorado study are remarkable. Patients who watched virtual reality content during surgery and were shielded from ambient noise with headphones used significantly less sedative per hour than patients who were traditionally sedated.

In the study, almost half the amount of the anaesthetic propofol was saved. In terms of overall comfort during surgery, the subjects found no significant differences between VR and conventional sedation.

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Benefits of VR in the operating room

For the researchers in Colorado, the benefits of VR in the operating room are clear, and not just for reassurance. While patients in the twilight state are unable to provide helpful feedback on their condition, the VR headset enables communication between doctors and patients.

For example, the remaining duration of the operation can be communicated via text messages superimposed on the VR headset, or the patient can be asked directly how he or she is feeling, says Faruki. In the future, the researchers want to send elderly patients into virtual reality during hip operations – the side effects of sedatives are more dangerous for them than for young people.

VR is already being used in hospitals

VR is also finding its way into German operating rooms. At the Fichtelgebirge Hospital, patients watch films during surgery. The VR headset is designed to help patients relax during operations under local anaesthetic, explains the hospital in Marktredwitz, Upper Franconia.

Patients can choose from a variety of films, including Mission Impossible with Tom Cruise. Classical concerts are also on offer. It is not yet known which app will be used for the VR presentation. After a test phase and positive feedback, virtual reality will become a permanent feature in the hospital network.

VR is already being used successfully in hospitals for operations in the UK.

Sources: University of Colorado, BR