In August 2011, Randy McAllister suffered third degree burns while trying to save equipment from a fire in wheat field. Today, he says that when he goes for his burn treatments, “it gets me to the threshold where I can’t stand it, but then I find out it can hurt even more,” says the 60-year-old farmer. During five weeks at the Oregon Burn Center at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, McAllister needed repeated rounds of burn wound care to remove dead tissue from his extensive burns. “It’s more painful than the fire.”
Then a nurse told him about SnowWorld, a computer game designed to help burn patients escape from agonizing pain by distracting their minds during burn treatments. During his next wound care session, McAllister wore headphones and looked through virtual reality goggles. He found himself floating through an icy canyon rendered almost three-dimensional by the wrap-around goggles. By tapping on a computer mouse, McAllister fired snowballs at animated penguins, snowmen and dolphins in the canyon to a soundtrack of upbeat music. And the virtual world made his real-world pain less overwhelming.
It’s one of the most successful examples of non-drug pain management techniques to emerge from the work of psychologists and neuroscientists. The search for non-drug options has gained urgency amid a worsening epidemic of overdoses linked to prescription opioid pain relievers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, which killed 14,800 Americans in 2008 – more those killed from heroin and cocaine overdoses combined.