Hundreds of troops are returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with extensive combat burns. Now, an Army hospital in Texas is experimenting with a virtual reality program that can distract burn victims and help alleviate some of their pain. The program, known as SnowWorld, was developed by researchers at the University of Washington.
About a year ago, Sgt. Oscar Liberetto was with his unit in Iraq when an improvised explosive device detonated near the Humvee he was riding in. The 23-year-old suffered severe burns on his left arm and hand. He was the only survivor from his group of five.
"It was pretty painful," Liberetto says. "Sometimes I didn't think that I was going to make it."
Liberetto, one of a dozen military burn patients being treated at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, participated in the study using SnowWorld. It works, essentially, through distraction.
The version of the program in the military hospital uses high-tech goggles that have a wide field of vision. SnowWorld helps patients who wear the goggles block the unpleasant view of their wounds and charred skin, allowing them to navigate an icy canyon instead.
In it, users can push a button and throw a snowball at a giant penguin or a mammoth, which trumpets angrily in response.
Liberetto says SnowWorld made a big difference for him.
"I think the environment makes you feel like you're at peace," he says.
University of Washington researcher Hunter Hoffman, whose team came up with SnowWorld, says his work with combat burns, which tend to cover up to 80 percent of the body, has been promising.
"What was encouraging was the ones that needed it the most showed the most pain reduction," Hoffman says. "So the patients that were in the most pain showed the most pain reduction from SnowWorld."
The technology is already in use in a handful of civilian hospitals; it's a virtual reality helmet that the patient wears to experience the snowy distraction. But combat burn patients are often too injured to wear the helmet, so Hoffman's team redesigned the VR unit as a set of goggles that patients look through, and a joystick.
Dr. Christopher Maani, chief of anesthesia at the Army medical center, says the treatment has reduced stress for nurses, as their patients are more comfortable. Then, there is the appreciation from troops' family members.
"You know, you can be stopped in the hallway and a hug is a very simple thing but it means so much," Maani says. "Those are the true rewards, and it really is making a difference and it really is helping our patients and our families."
The Army is also researching the use of virtual reality for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.