A landmark trail has found that hypnosis can work better than strong anaesthetic and could eventually become the norm for elderly people undergoing arthritis operations. Doctors have welcomed the result of a study in which anaesthetic powerful enough to put patients to sleep was replaced with a virtual reality experience designed to slow breathing rhythms.

Participants in need of shoulder, hand or knee surgery were given headsets and taken on a ‘submarine tour’ with a soothing female voice pointing out fish and underwater features. They had each been given a local anaesthetic but the virtual reality hypnosis distraction ‘VRHD’ replaced the intravenous sedation such patients would normally have received. This can put people to sleep, but does not induce the full control coma of a general anaesthetic.

Doctors at the CUB Erasmus Hospital in Brussels found the hypnosis successfully replaced intravenous sedation in three-quarters of patients who had the submarine VRHD during the surgery. Meanwhile, 90% of those who had hypnosis for ten minutes before, as well as during the operation, did not require intravenous sedation.

The researchers said virtual reality hypnosis would be ideal for elderly patients undergoing these types of non-major joint operations because they do not come with the risks of heavy sedation and the longer recovery time. Intravenous sedation typically causes side effects such as drowsiness, headaches and dry mouth for several hours.

Dr Delphine van Hecke, who co-led the research, said: ‘While it is not clear exactly how virtual reality works to reduce anxiety and pain, it’s thought that it creates a distraction that stops the mind feeling pain. Further studies should focus on other procedures suited for the use for VRHD, particularly its potential benefit in children as pre-medication or during low pain procedures.’

Presented at the Euro Anaesthesia Congress in Vienna, the results also showed that patients receiving VRHD had similar comfort and satisfaction levels before and during the procedures as those given intravenous sedation. Dr. Dragos Chirnoga, the other lead researcher, said: ‘Given the immersive and distracting nature of the virtual reality experience, this technology has the ability to act as a preventive intervention transforming local anaesthesia into a less distressing and potentially pain-free medical procedure.@

The trial involved 60 adults scheduled for orthopaedic surgery with a local anaesthetic. A control group of 20 were randomly assigned standard intravenous sedation without any virtual reality, while a second group were given VRHD during the procedure and only given intravenous sedation if patients reported pain scores of 3 out of ten. The third group of 20 started the hypnosis before the procedure. Dr Chirnoga said his method would need to be trialled on larger patient bodies before being approved for general use.

The newspaper I read this in headed its report as ‘Look into My Eyes to Help Heal My Knees’. A certainly appropriate title as far as I’m concerned for at the end of last year I was rushed to hospital having seriously experienced a fall that kept me there for eleven gruelling days, and until know I still find even walking with a stick gives me no end of pain in my knees. However, I feel confident that by perseverance I shall overcome my current minor disability.

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