Virtual reality therapy helps patients at Calgary hospital ease anxiety and pain

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WATCH: Physiotherapists say a new virtual reality treatment is reducing up to 75 per cent of patients’ pain at the Rockyview General Hospital in Calgary. Jayme Doll takes a first-hand look at the tool with a patient who lives with compartment syndrome – Aug 30, 2018

Graydon Cuthbertson sat in a hospital bed Thursday, his badly scarred legs on display. He wore a gown and a blue paper shower cap. But he was as far as one possibly could be from a sterile hospital room, or at least his mind was.

“It’s like I’m sitting on a calm lake, deep in the forest with just the birds…a fire just started which is really neat,” the 47-year-old said, peering through a snorkel-like mask with a phone strapped to it.

READ MORE: UNB study to use virtual reality to find real solution to phantom pain

In July, Cuthbertson was diagnosed with compartment syndrome, which occurs when there is swelling inside a limb that causes pressure to build up and damage nerves, according to MyHealth Alberta. When the limb loses blood supply, it begins to ache, which increases to very severe pain and can sometimes cause serious nerve and muscle damage.

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He underwent three intense surgeries and spent much of the summer in hospital.

Some of his wounds remained exposed to heal; he said the pain was immense.

“They had dressings over the open muscle so they had to slowly peel it off of that muscle, and that was excruciating,” he said.

Cuthbertson often had to take extra pain medication just to get through the dressing changes, but everything changed when he was introduced to virtual reality therapy.

READ MORE: Virtual reality, 3D printing among innovations changing medical treatment

Patients put on a headset and are then transported into a relaxing, idyllic three-dimensional world. They can choose from a dozen destinations including a campground, a swim with dolphins or a trip to a prehistoric landscape to hang out with the dinosaurs. The results have been impressive.

“There’s been about a 75 per cent reduction in pain and anxiety and 30 per cent improvement in their overall experience,” said Jaclyn Frank, a wound care physiotherapist at Rockyview General Hospital.

She also noted it’s helped health-care workers, because they feel less anxiety about inflicting discomfort on patients already reeling in pain.

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“It’s been a surprising and positive outcome,” Frank said.

LISTEN: Jacklyn Frank joins The Morning News to explain how wound care at Rockyview uses virtual reality for treatments

Two headsets were funded by an anonymous donor and cost about $1,000 apiece for the all the equipment and experiences.

The project is a first in Canada for wound care. It is now being tested on patients in the intensive care and cardiac units.

Cuthbertson has been discharged, but is grateful to have been part of the virtual reality therapy. He said it turned a dreaded experience into a moment of tranquility.

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