Erin Martucci didn’t expect to be among the first women to experience virtual reality during childbirth, she just wanted to deliver her baby girl without epidural, narcotics or any other drugs for the labor pain. However, when her doctor, Ralph Anderson introduced her the equipment, the calming beach scene and the soothing audio giving her breathing instructions really helped her through the most difficult parts of labor. The Medical Futurist asked Martucci and Dr. Anderson what they think about the option of using VR for labor pain.
Delivering a baby with VR
It was a grey dawn in November 2016, when Erin Martucci woke up with contractions. She got the sense she was close to delivering her second child. At around five-thirty in the morning, she breastfed her firstborn baby boy and went to the hospital with her husband. They were determined to have a natural birth and going completely drug-free. “For my first birth, I did have an epidural, but I wasn’t overall happy with having the side effects of the medication with my baby, because I think it interfered with the bonding experience,” she explained why she decided against the epidural this time.
The contractions increased very quickly, and her husband kept helping her breath, but Martucci started to get doubts about the process and got a little panicky. That is when Dr. Anderson introduced her the VR headset (Samsung Galaxy Phone with GearVR) with AppliedVR’s software on it. “I was a little like; I feel terrible, this isn’t gonna help. But then I looked at my husband, who said, why not give it a shot? So, I thought, okay, why not?”, recounted the story Martucci. When she got on the device, the goggles immediately immersed her into a sunny beach scene with pleasing blue ocean waves, and a calm voice started to coach her breath. She completely lost her sense of time, and only heard the interruption “You are ready to push,” then Dr. Anderson took the device off her head.
“I was so engulfed in what was going on in the application, that I didn’t know two hours had gone by. My body was progressing, I could tell that, but I didn’t know where I was in my labor, and when my doctor came in and said – you are ready to push! – I was astounded, but then he took the headset off, and literally, within less than a minute, I delivered my baby”, explained Martucci. “I delivered her naturally, and the bonding experience was immediately so positive!”, she added enthusiastically.
Is VR a viable choice for childbirth?
“With Erin, it was a home-run!”, started the story Anderson. He said that although he already helped more than forty mothers deliver their kids with VR, Martucci’s case was the most successful. She had the VR device on for the longest time, and she could go entirely drug-free. The obstetrician-gynecologist recounted that in another patient’s case, it was the mother’s third birth and while she needed an epidural and narcotics during the previous births, with VR, she only used the epidural, which was a significant achievement. “We didn’t have the home-run with no pain medicine whatsoever, but we came pretty close,” explained Anderson.
Thus, so far, in many cases, VR cannot yet “fight” the pain completely, and in other cases, the virtual universe might mean such a big distraction that mothers get anxious that they will not know what’s happening to them or around them. “My cousin had a baby two months ago, so I talked to her about the experience. She tried it but she could not wear the VR the whole time because she started to get panicky, so it’s not for everybody. She may have a different experience”, added Martucci.
With Erin, her doctor believes, motivation to deliver the baby drug-free and maturity helped the most. “We have to have a patient willing to try it. Sometimes they are not aware of the technology, and they feel reluctant to try it unless they see a reason for it. They generally are kind of skeptical”, Anderson added. However, he says he walks around in the Orange Regional Medical Center with the device, and whenever there is a procedure, that might cause some discomfort or pain, he offers VR as an option for pain relief. “The most part, when we do use it, it’s something that’s beneficial I’d say 90 percent of the time”, the doctor added.
An option for pain-relief without opioids
Virtual reality will become a great tool for making healthcare more pleasant in the future, as it can make the healthcare journey for patients more agreeable: alleviates all kinds of pain, dissipates fear, offers more empathy and better care. „Imagine allowing a terminally sick patient bound to a hospice bed to swim with dolphins, revisit their favorite spot or tick off on their bucket list a place they have always dreamed to visit.
The VR experiences bring patients moments of joy, taking their mind away from their condition and even reducing physical pain and give something to look forward to”, says Martin Holecko from Vrgineers, a Czech start-up working on VR solutions for all kinds of industries. He added that using VR in therapy shows the fantastic potential of the technology far beyond gaming.
Anderson, who got introduced to the technology two or three years ago by his son working for AppliedVR, also believes that VR will become part of the medical armamentarium, as it could take the place of painkillers, especially opiates. He mentioned what a gigantic challenge the opioid crisis means for the US, and how doctors are doing everything they can to minimize the amount of drugs. “You want to avoid it as much as possible. Everything we can do, whether it’s hypnosis or virtual reality or a Jacuzzi, anything is worth investigating”, he added.
In fact, virtual reality means a viable option, as research having been conducted by Brennan Spiegel and his team at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center already shows. One of the most advantageous features of the technology is that it does not have any severe side effects. Martucci only experienced that the device got a little hot after a while, but she didn’t notice anything else. Anderson said that no one to his knowledge has gotten any visual issues due to the goggles, but he had patients whom it made a little motion sick. However, he added that was maybe two patients out of a couple hundred.
Will women deliver their babies with VR in the future?
When The Medical Futurist asked Martucci whether she would use VR for her next childbirth as well, she immediately said, yes, hundred percent sure she would. “I think it’s just another positive intervention for women who don’t want to have the epidural but maybe need a little support,” she said.
Martucci added that she would recommend it to anyone else who would like to opt for no pain medication, and she already talked about her experience with other women. If people get to know about this option, see videos or hear first-hand accounts of how childbirth with VR went, it will become more and more of a viable choice for them, believes Anderson. It will take away the skepticism, and the reluctance to try something new.
When Anderson started working with the technology for pain management, he used it for minor procedures. Colonoscopies, biopsies, removal of implants, placing intrauterine birth control devices (IUD), so interventions where patients can be anxious. Later on, his practice grew into applying it also for mothers in labor.
He believes that in the future, its use will be more widespread and becomes another option in the medical tool-set. “I think better studies are going to come out, we’re going to figure out better ways to apply it. I think the apps and the devices are going to get better. They are pretty user-friendly as they are, but everything approves with time. I do believe that with time, we’ll have a recipe of options for pain management, and, somewhere on that list, there will be virtual reality”, he explained.