Forget the epidural, try VR for labor pain

Might being on a tropical beach make childbirth a little bit easier?

As it appears, it just might—at least when it comes to simulating a tropical beach with a virtual reality (VR) headset. Thankfully, no actual sand is involved.

How can VR be an effective pain management tool for childbirth? Let’s investigate.

Chart: MedTech Pulse

Where can VR fit in to childbirth?

As with all pain, labor-related pain is more than just physiological. In seeing pain as a complex physiological and psychological process, the researchers behind this study sought to understand how a VR-enabled relaxation technique might help laboring women through childbirth.

The researchers looked to previous work demonstrating VR’s effectiveness in other kinds of painful medical contexts—even labor. Thus, VR distraction therapy appeared in the birthing room. 

Overall, the intervention appears to have been successful. Participants reported feeling effectively distracted from their pain, and absorbed in the visual experience they were having. The VR both helped them escape the sterile, medical environment they were in and better manage the pain of contractions.

One participant shared: “I could focus on what I was seeing and try and distract my mind and then every time the contractions were coming, I was focusing on the dolphins and things coming and it really helped me.”

Another said: “…I saw the dolphin was coming and the contraction was coming, I could focus, that is the contraction and then the dolphin was moving and then I was moving with that…so focus on your object of reference, and the contractions are going to come and go like the dolphin, so it would appear and then it would go, so I think it was quite nice, very relaxing, I love it.”

A vast majority of the study’s 25 participants reported willingness to use VR again and to recommend it to their pregnant friends.

The question of “natural” childbirth

There are many ways to approach childbirth-associated pain. A popular option, of course, is pharmacological intervention, such as the epidural. But for those who wish to forego drug-enabled pain management, there is still an assortment of options, including body positioning, music therapy, and acupressure—with VR perhaps joining their ranks.
Oftentimes, when facing the question of whether to use pharmacological pain relief during childbirth, the decision is framed around whether the birth will be “natural” or not.

This word choice can be stigmatizing for women who do opt for epidural analgesia—not to mention the implications for other “unnatural” ways of bringing a baby into the world, such as C-section or IVF. 

However, the word does clue us into one of the main reasons behind opting for a drug-free birth: experiencing the entire physiological process of childbirth, with its full spectrum of sensations.  This is where VR distraction therapy may be a mismatch for the goals of some women opting for an anesthesia-free labor experience. Some of the study’s participants reported the VR caused them to disconnect from their partner and their bodily experience overall.

Regardless of the pain-relief method used, the question of “natural” can be fraught with emotion and cultural meaning. Plus, childbirth and the prospect of becoming a parent are challenging enough. 

If we can give new parents yet another tool to make this experience easier, whatever the purpose, that sounds like a win to us.

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