When burn victims are resting (most of the time), opioids (morphine and morphine-related chemicals) are adequate for controlling their burn pain. In sharp contrast, during wound care such as daily bandage changes, wound cleaning, staple removals etc., opioids are not enough, not even close. Researchers at Harborview Burn Center in Seattle have developed a virtual reality program to fully immerse a patient in an alternative reality. Patients are equipped with goggles and "enter" a computer-generated environment . Entering another world distracts the patients from the painful wound care process and decreases their perception of the pain.
Moving and stretching are also very painful but crucial for a successful recovery. Recently, physical therapists at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center have reported that burn patients who need to move and stretch benefit from "Wii-habilitation". The Wii is much more accessible and affordable than the Harborview program. It too promotes recovery while getting their minds off the injury and pain.
Recognizing the impact of long-term pain is important. A recent article in Rehabilitation Psychology, Pain, Depression and Physical Functioning Following Burn Injury concludes that that pain and depression may contribute independently to compromise physical function. And, when a burn patient suffers from both pain and depression, he is at a greater risk for reduced physical functioning over time.
Researchers look forward to further applications of virtual reality programs and games to promote successful rehabilitation in burn survivors. However,one area of burn recovery that virtual reality will likely not reduce is the relentless itching of the healing process. Although wound care, moving and stretching are undeniably painful, one of our clients felt tortured by the constant itching. The opioids and topical balms provided little or no relief. While research may improve treatments, the reality remains, burn victims endure tremendous suffering at every stage of their recovery.