Using Virtual Reality During Labour is a Great Use of Tech

You may have read today that a new trial is being rolled out at the University of Cardiff, Wales, to test the use of Virtual Reality (VR) headset monitors for women in labour. 

Many women say that the childbirth experience is one of the most painful and fearful times of their lives so it is encouraging that a new method to help women could be just around the corner.

How it works

Creating visualisations that encourage the mind to focus when accessing a deeply relaxed state in childbirth is nothing new, it is how hypnobirthing works.

Accessing the power of one’s own mind over the body, you are able to alter the brain’s perceptions of the sensations that you experience as you know what your body is trying to achieve. A phrase common amongst hypnobirthing teachers is ‘where the mind leads, the body follows’ and many advocate against the use of language like ‘pain’ and ‘contractions’ as to move the attention away from the body.

VR also works by exerting an array of emotional affective, emotion-based cognitive and attentional processes on the body’s intricate pain modulation system. By activating the body’s Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) or ‘rest and digest’ system, a number of the body’s natural hormones such as Oxytocin, Melatonin and Beta-Endorphins can ease pain and relieve fear and stress.

For some people they don’t have mental capacity or capability to use their imagination themselves VR can guide people away from the hospital environment back into themselves.

I can see how these could be especially useful for people who have a negative association with a hospital environment or a previously traumatic perinatal event to add an extra level of guidance through their birth journey. 

Where has the idea come from?

The idea that using VR to induce a deeply relaxed state and to guide a patient through a visualisation so that they report lower pain sensitivity has been around for some time in medicine.

In 2016 the Science Journalist Jo Marchant wrote a book called Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body which detailed how the mind is a powerful tool in changing the way our body responds to stimuli.

Studies from across the world have shown the efficacy of VR in situations where patients with both acute and chronic health conditions where pain is debilitating and non-responsive to other pharmaceutical measures. These can include burn care, cancer pain and routine surgical procedures that may be highly stressful and anxiety provoking*. Participants immersed in VR report experiencing reduced levels of pain, general distress and unpleasantness, with many reporting a desire to use VR again during painful medical procedures.

What could be the benefits to using VR in birth?

Adding VR into the toolkit of comfort measures available to women to ease the intense sensations during labour could be beneficial in a number of ways.

Women who have adverse reactions or are hyper sensitive to hormone inducers such as Prostaglandins or synthetic Oxytocin may benefit from having another tool designed to encourage the bodies natural hormones to be released and the overall experience of birth could be far more positive.

As a comfort measure VR could be add another dimension to other non-pharmaceutical comfort measures like water pools or Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) machines which are commonly used by women to distract from the sensations of birth. They are popular because there isn’t any lasting effect on the body or baby, instead focusing on achieving a deeply relaxed state.

Are there any limitations to using VR?

At around £4000 per set, the price may put off healthcare providers. As with any other piece of new technology, I imagine the price will come down as it is rolled out.

Some will argue that by suggesting women need VR to be guided through childbirth there is a subconscious message is that women need assistance in birth, that birth isn’t a normal life event that through evolution we were specially designed for over thousands of years for.

Continuity of care, that is the same one or two midwives throughout labour and childbirth, has been found to have a significant effect on a woman’s use of pain relief. A Cochrane review in 2017 found that women reported fewer negative experiences of birth, fewer requests of any type of analgesia and more likely to give birth ‘spontaneously’ that is vaginally without any instrumental or surgical intervention.**

Finally…


Pain experienced by women related to their reproductive system is an area that scientific research has historically neglected in terms of time and investment - erectile function studies outnumbers those studying Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS) by five times, even though only 19% of men report symptoms compared with around 80% of women.

I wouldn’t be surprised and actually pleased if VR headsets become mainstream with different visualisation programmes being designed and released so that women have a variety of choice as to how they manage their birth.

  • *Li, A., Montaño, Z., Chen, V. J., & Gold, J. I. (2011). Virtual reality and pain management: current trends and future directions. Pain management, 1(2), 147–157. doi:10.2217/pmt.10.15

  • **Bohren MA, Hofmeyr G, Sakala C, Fukuzawa RK, Cuthbert A. Continuous support for women during childbirth. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2017, Issue 7. Art. No.: CD003766. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003766.pub6