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December 5, 2017

Virtual Reality (VR) Treats Pain More Effectively Than Painkillers

Nathan Twyman Writer

Nathan Twyman, VR & AR Content Creator

Physical pain is something that affects us all. When pain becomes chronic and unbearable, we turn towards painkillers.

In fact, opioid usage has tripled in the US since the 1990s and shows no signs of slowing. After all, what else can we do?

Enter virtual reality.

In 1996, Hunter Hoffman, a VR pioneer and psychologist David Patterson embarked on a study that would change the world forever.

Hoffman and Patterson researched the impact of our surrounding world on physical pain. The basis of the study was to challenge the inner workings of the human brain. What they found was incredible.

Introducing pain to your body in a VR simulation triggers your brain to shift and focus more in the virtual world, and less on pain.

This VR mediated neuro-hack results in a much less painful physical experience. The discovery proved to have a very similar effect to painkillers.

SnowWorld: New Alternative to Pain?

SnowWorld Snowman Penguins VR

In 2003, Hoffman and the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Washington developed a game called SnowWorld.

SnowWorld acted as an experimental form of pain therapy. Players throw snowballs at snowmen and penguins while exploring a virtual winter wonderland.

SnowWorld was tested on wounded Army soldiers who suffered severe burn pain. Properly treating and caring for burns is an extremely painful process for victims, and painkillers do very little to help.

While getting wounds treated, burn victims played SnowWorld instead of taking morphine. The results were astonishing.

Burn patients reported they felt an average of 50% less pain when they played SnowWorld compared to when taking painkillers.

Several experiments were conducted for various forms of pain. With each test, SnowWorld was more effective at alleviating pain than painkillers.

A Modern Approach

This proof of concept inspired the HITLab to create a VR startup called Firsthand Technology. Firsthand aims to create modern VR technology that can help create a more pain-free world without the need for medication.

The team is currently developing “Cool!”, a spiritual successor to SnowWorld. With updated features and graphics, they hope to test Cool! with more patients and further improve its effectiveness.


Cool VR spiritual successor to SnowWorld

In early tests, patients have reported up to 60% to 75% less pain during the game compared to not playing. To put that in perspective, morphine reduces pain by an average of 30%.



Check back on this page frequently for updates and additions.

Burn or no burn, we’re all going to feel some sort of physical pain in our lives. And with the over usage of painkillers becoming a real problem, it’s very refreshing to see an effective alternative in the picture.

If taken mainstream, we could one day experience a much more immersive and safer way to treat pain. After all, there’s nothing quite like beating up a few snowmen to sooth that migraine.

What do you think? Is virtual reality the future of pain treatment?

You most likely have some other VR ideas that can change the world! Share them with us on social media!

Thank you for Reading