When it comes to labor and delivery (L&D) pain management, women have historically had two options:
- Medical management through IV drugs, inhaled nitrous oxide (laughing gas), or epidural
- Self-relaxation techniques such as aromatherapy or a warm bath
But it's 2020, and labor pain management is going digital. Researchers are studying the potential of virtual reality (VR) for to manage pain during childbirth.
VR technology offers simulated 360-degree experiences that look like real life. For example, you might put on a VR headset and see a beach with ocean waves. VR is already popular for gaming but has had limited applications in medicine outside of surgical training.
The technology has been studied in recent years as a "distraction therapy" for reducing pain associated with blood draws in pediatric patients. It's also been researched as "exposure therapy" to help patients manage challenging symptoms associated with anxiety, phobias, and autism spectrum disorders.
Studies on using VR for L&D pain relief have been sparse. One 2019 study of 27 patients showed significant decreases in pain and anxiety during the first stage of labor using VR.
But in early February, I heard an exciting presentation on the results of a VR and labor pain study out of California. Results from the study suggest that VR could be the next big thing in alternative labor pain management.
VR might lower pain, heart rate during labor
The 40 study participants were first-time mothers who had not received any pain medication or epidural analgesia. All were experiencing contractions occurring every five minutes, which they classified as a 4 to a 7 on a pain scale of 1 to 10.
"Virtual reality technology has been studied in recent years as a 'distraction therapy' for reducing pain, and I heard an exciting presentation recently that suggests VR could be the next big thing in alternative labor pain management."
Patients who agreed to participate were randomized to use either no pain management therapy or to use VR headsets featuring a 30-minute program specially designed for labor. The VR group had the choice to watch other programs, including games, but most chose the labor program. Researchers gathered vital sign information during this time.
At the end of the 30 minutes, researchers asked participants to rate their pain. Not surprisingly, women who opted for no therapy had increased pain scores. But women who used VR headsets recorded lower pain scores and lower heart rates, which may suggest a physiologic response to reduced pain.
The future of VR for labor pain
The California study was small, which limits the ability to assume large-scale success. Future studies will need to be larger and compare a VR labor program against other VR programming.
VR is a promising option, given the interest in non-drug pain management alternatives for childbirth. I suspect it will be studied more. And while I don't expect VR headsets to be available at most hospitals in the near future, some patients might consider packing their own in their delivery go-bag.
For many women, planning for childbirth pain management requires an open mind – there are many options to consider. Your Ob/Gyn can help you create a plan you can feel confident about.