Study: Virtual reality reduces need for anesthesia use during hand surgery

[A new study described in this story from Pain News Network demonstrated the ability of virtual reality (and arguably presence) to distract and calm surgery patients so that they could be given lower doses of anesthesia. See a press release via EurekAlert! and the new article published in PLOS ONE for more details. –Matthew]

[Image: Figure 2 from the study in PLOS ONE: A) Image of a study patient using the VR equipment. B) Screenshot of a typical immersive environment with an example of text communication from study personnel. The text in B says “Surgery is going great! Try to stay still”]

Virtual Reality Therapy Reduces Drug Use During Surgery

By Madora Pennington, PNN Columnist
September 21, 2022

Imagine going in for minor surgery, one where you don’t need to be totally unconscious, and being given a virtual reality headset for pain and anxiety relief instead of the usual dose of anesthesia.

The virtual reality (VR) device would distract you during surgery by immersing you in a nature scene, like a forest, mountain top or nighttime sky. And a guide meditation would reassure you with, “Surgery is going great! Try to stay still!”

Would this even work?

A small study led by researchers at the University of Colorado sought to find out by looking at 34 patients receiving hand surgery that could be done without general anesthesia. While virtual reality has been widely studied as a treatment for acute and chronic pain, researchers are just beginning to explore whether it can be used during surgery.

“In the field of anesthesia, we are constantly focused on improving patient safety and care quality,” said lead author Adeel Faruki, MD, an anesthesiologist at the University of Colorado Hospital. “There are many studies currently underway assessing if VR can be used for orthopedic joint surgeries.”

Faruki and his colleagues divided the patients into two groups. Half received the usual care and served as a control group, while the other half wore VR headsets and noise-cancelling headphones during surgery to promote relaxation and calmness. Both groups received local anesthesia and the sedative propofol, either upon patient request or at the discretion of an anesthesiologist.

Researchers found that patients in the VR group received significantly less propofol than those in the control group. Only four of the 17 patients in the VR group received any propofol during their surgery, while every patient in the control group received the sedative.

Not surprisingly, the VR patients tended to need more supplemental local anesthesia. Propofol can amplify the effectiveness of pain medication, so patients on propofol generally require less numbing and pain relief.

Patients in both groups reported their pain was well-controlled and they felt relaxed during surgery. There were no significant differences in their pain scores or surgery outcomes. In short, the VR group did just as well with the pleasant distraction of the device as those receiving more sedating medication.

There are advantages to using less propofol. The drug is commonly used as sedative during surgery, but poses risks because it tends to depress breathing, which is dangerous. “Acute propofol intoxication” was cited as the cause of pop star Michael Jackson’s overdose death in 2009.

Propofol is also hard on the brain and may cause lower cognition after surgery.  Being less drugged, patients who received VR were discharged from the postoperative recovery room an average of 22 minutes earlier than fully medicated patients. Getting patients released early frees hospital staff and resources for other patients and needs.

Some limitations the authors of the study acknowledge are that patients signing up for VR might be more likely to do well with less anesthesia if they volunteered for it. Neither the patients nor the healthcare providers were “blinded” in this study, meaning everyone knew which patients were getting VR and which ones weren’t. This scenario opens the possibility that providers participating in the study might inadvertently influence the results by giving the VR patients less propofol.

The bottom line for this study, which is being published in PLOS ONE, is that patients can have just as comfortable a surgery with less sedation when VR is used. The study does not prove that VR is better, just that it does as well as sedative medication.

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