Diane Gromala

Virtual reality helps pain victims

November 14, 2007

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By Barry Shell

Which serious burn victims get more pain relief — those on morphine or the ones fully immersed in a three-dimensional (3D) skiing adventure computer game?

Diane Gromala, associate professor in SFU's School of Interactive Arts and Technology, has more than just a professional interest in the answer to that question. She is the founding director of SFU’s BioMedia Lab, but she also suffers from chronic pain.

And the answer: "Controlled experiments consistently show that subjects who are distracted in fully immersive virtual reality (VR) environments feel less pain than their counterparts on drug-based pain treatments," says Gromala.

"That’s one reason why I’m devoting much of my research to understanding how VR goggles and headsets can be used to help relieve pain. I’m also working on improved computerized meditation and visualization therapy aids."

Gromala’s goal is to find new ways to use computer technologies to help people improve their own health outcomes through education, experience, and physical expressiveness.

One in five Canadians experiences chronic pain, she says, and they must wait an average of two to five years to see a pain specialist. "So there is a real demand for this kind of therapy."

Gromala collaborates with physicians on novel computerized biofeedback therapies that give sufferers a way to express, visualize and keep track of their pain. They also give people in chronic pain a way to gain some control of their suffering while waiting for treatment by specialists.

"As Canada’s baby-boomers enter old age, pain management looms as a huge public-health issue," she says. "Controlling pain through computerized VR and biofeedback meditation therapies has the promise of providing successful, cost-effective alternatives to pain medications."

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