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Treating pain with a virtual world of snow and ice

Hunter Hoffman
A still from the virtual reality game, Snow World. Burn patients at Horborview Medical Center in Seattle play the game during wound care.

This story originally aired on April 27, 2019. 

Being treated for a severe burn is one of the most physically painful things a human can experience. Dead skin has to be scrubbed away. The skin has to be stretched so that as it heals, it doesn’t get tight. If this is not done, a patient can be maimed permanently. It’s during these treatments, or wound care sessions, that the pain is often the worst.


This is what 64-year-old Kathleen Linsicum from Palmer, Alaska is going through. She’s a patient at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. She sustained burns over 20 percent of her body after a bonfire she was standing in front of at a party exploded.


“We did so much cleaning and scraping on it that there were a couple of times I let out a couple of moans because, I’m not gonna kid you, it hurts like hell, big time. And when you come out from all of that, like the next day, I hurt just as bad as I did the day the fire took place,” said Linsicum from her hospital bed.


Sometimes patients will undergo anesthesia to get them through wound care; the pain can be that intense. Morphine is often involved. Even though you still feel the pain, morphine makes you not really care that it’s there.


Researchers have found a workaround so that people like Linsicum can have a significant reduction in pain for short stretches of time. For some of Linsicum’s wound care sessions, goggles, similar to ones you’d use for snorkeling, are gently placed on her face. Then she leaves the real world behind and enters Snow World.


Snow World is a seemingly magical land far removed from fire or anything else that’s hot and could cause a burn. Players toss snowballs at snowmen and penguins, all while listening to Paul Simon’s "Graceland."


When Kathleen Linsicum plays the game as nurses scrub her burns clean, she says her stress level actually drops.


“The more you focus on the game part of the virtual reality ... you kind of step outside of your body," said Linsicum. "I know that sounds crazy, but that’s ... what you’re doing. Your mind isn’t focused on all of that pain.”

The program was created by Dr. Hunter Hoffman, a researcher at the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Washington, and Dr. David Patterson, a UW psychologist. They’re harnessing the power of distraction created by virtual reality and using it to block pain. The patients they treat are here in the Northwest and at Shriners Burn Hospital in Galveston, Texas.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.