Virtual meditative ‘walk in park’ aimed at relieving long-term pain

[From The Vancouver Sun]

Virtual meditative `walk in park´ aimed at relieving long-term pain

By Kelly Sinoski, Vancouver Sun
October 12, 2009

A virtual meditative walk in the park may be just what the doctor ordered for chronic pain sufferers.

Simon Fraser University associate professor Diane Gromala claims research shows a 3-D stroll in the forest has the power to help people manage chronic pain, sometimes with better results than traditional means such as morphine.

Gromala, head of SFU´s Transforming Pain Research Group, is in the midst of developing such a virtual reality technique called  “walking meditation.”

The technique is one of several programs including virtual reality video games and meditation chambers, used around the world to aid sufferers of chronic back pain and migraines, among others.

“In our scientific tests, it´s proven to be better than opiates, but for people who have chronic pain, they have a range of things they use,” Gromala said. “It´s really a strong tool in an arsenal of things that can reduce the amount of drugs they need to take.”

Chronic pain is described as pain that persists more than six months and often has no cure. Gromala said the average wait time to see a pain specialist in Canada is four years.

The virtual reality technique is similar to using movies or video games to distract chronic pain sufferers from their pain. But it takes it a step further: Users hook up to a “biofeedback” device by putting velcro rings around their fingers.

They also wear virtual-reality glasses and earphones, which enable them to feel as if they are walking into an interactive computer screen.

A meditative voice suggests what to focus on while music plays in the background.

In the walking meditation technique, for instance, sufferers hooked up to an elliptical machine take a walk through the forest. They can see the rocks and trees and hear the sounds of birds and animals.

All the visuals and sounds reflect the users´ movements. Gromala said. When they are approaching a meditative state, the sun sets and the world becomes quieter.

“You’re distracted from intense pain when you´re in that environment,” said Gromala, who suffers from nerve entrapment, which feels like a nagging toothache.

“With each [technique] I develop I learn to meditate better so I´m able to control the pain and frustration that comes with making it go away.”

Gromala said she and her colleagues plan to develop techniques that allow users to lie down while experiencing virtual-reality techniques.

The techniques often combine a mix of realistic and abstract worlds. For instance, a game world developed for children allows the user to become a fish in a magical world, whose goal is to collect enough points to rescue his friends and family held captive in the arms of an octopus.

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