Digital Drugs: virtual reality can help women manage labor pains

Written by Dr. Andrew Doan & Brooke Strickland on .

Virtual reality headsets are becoming more popular and recent research has shown that they can act as a pain killer. In fact, they can even help women manage labor pains. Erin Martucci, a patient at Orange Regional Medical Center in New York recently used a virtual reality headset to help her pain management during labor. 

Instead of laying in her bed focusing on the contractions she was having, she was on a beach enjoying a bonfire. Next, she was enjoying watching waterfalls and birds, listening to voices encourage her to focus on those things rather than her actual surroundings in the hospital. After denying an epidural earlier, Martucci’s doctor suggested using the virtual reality headset to help as an alternative pain treatment. Ralph Anderson, her doctor, has recently become interested in reducing the use of narcotic pain killers and anesthesia with alternative pain treatments, and virtual reality is one of those methods. He has also used these headsets to calm patients before and during minor procedures in his office and has seen success. (1) 


Virtual reality as a pain killer has also been used in other instances as well. A 2013 NPR article discusses Sam Brown, a veteran who was severely burned. After several burn grafts and other treatments to help repair his body, other pain killers simply were not providing the level of relief he needed. Two researchers developed a game called SnowWorld that provokes a response in the brain that allows the patient to forget about the pain by floating along icy canyons or throwing snowballs. Brown used the game and saw success and now other soldiers have used it and it’s dramatically changed how they process pain. (2)  Studies dating back to 2011 show that virtual reality is a credible way to manage and treat pain. A study from The Society of Behavioral Medicine shows that there was a 35-50% reduction in procedural pain while using in a distracting immersive virtual reality. (3) Therefore, digital media reducing pain act on the brain to release neurotransmitters and release of hormones and endorphins in the bloodstream to reduce pain. This is why we call games and digital media, “digital drugs”.


Virtual reality can transport you into a different space and time. Your brain is being trained to immerse itself in this new, lifelike reality. In today’s world of ever-changing technology, understanding the positive and negative effects of virtual reality is very important. It can truly have some wonderful uses, but if it’s overused by kids, young adults, and adult gamers, it can yield negative results, including detachment from real life and the neglecting of real responsibilities. For more information, visit


  1. Amirtha, Tina. “Can virtual reality help women cope with childbirth?” The Guardian. December 9, 2016.
  2. “Virtual Penguins: A Prescription for Pain?” NPR. February 12, 1012.  
  3. Hoffman, Hunter, G., PhD, Chambers, Gloria, T., RN, III Meyer, Walter, J., MD, PhD, Arceneaux, Lisa, L., PhD, Russell, William, J., MS, Seibel, Eric, J., PhD, Richards, Todd, L., PhD, Sharar, Sam, R., MD, Patterson, David, PhD.  “Virtual Reality as an Adjunctive Non-pharmacologic Analgesic for Acute Burn Pain During Medical Procedures.” Society of Behavioral Medicine 2011.