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Groundbreaking experiment in virtual reality uses video game to treat pain

By Meghan Frank and Neal Carter

Rock Center

Lieutenant Sam Brown could not wait to experience combat.

“It's an interesting thing, this desire to go to combat. It's something that's fantasized for people that have not experienced it,” Brown told NBC’s Natalie Morales in an interview airing Thursday on Rock Center with Brian Williams. “And so, I had a really strong desire to be a part of that. To me, that was a way to serve my country,” he said.

Born to a proud military family, Brown attended the United States Military Academy at West Point and trained to become a member of the elite Army Rangers 1st infantry division. In 2008, Brown deployed for his first tour of duty to Kandahar, Afghanistan.

But on the last day of his mission, a nearby platoon was ambushed. Lieutenant Brown sprang into action, leading his troops to the vicious firefight to provide backup.

“I led them to the combat. And then, that's when we hit the IED.,” recalled Brown.

His Humvee ran over an improvised explosive device and exploded into a fireball. His body was engulfed in flames and Brown suffered third degree burns over 30% of his body. His injuries were so severe he was kept in a medically induced coma for the first few weeks to help him survive.

Brown was airlifted back to the United States and examined by Dr. Christopher Maani, an anesthesiologist in the burn unit of Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.

“With burn injury, that rehabilitative process can go on for weeks to months, sometimes even years if the burn is significant enough as it was in Sam's case,” Dr. Maani said.

Lt. Brown endured more than two dozen painful surgeries, but the most excruciating pain came from the daily wound care and the physical therapy that followed.  The procedures were so unbearable that there were times when Brown's superior officers would have to order him to undergo treatment.

Brown was deeply concerned about growing dependent on the addictive painkilling narcotics he needed to take. So, his doctor suggested something completely unexpected to relieve his pain: a video game.

“I was a little bit skeptical. But honestly, I was willing to try anything,” Brown admitted.

A video game may sound silly, but this particular game, SnowWorld, is a groundbreaking experiment in virtual reality. In SnowWorld, Brown could concentrate on throwing snowballs at penguins and mastodons to the music of Paul Simon, instead of focusing on the painful wound care happening at the same time.

Dr. Maani explained that SnowWorld uses the age old trick of distraction.

“It's saying, ‘Hey, look over there,’ when you rip off your child's band aid,” Dr. Maani said.

The video game provides the distraction that overwhelms the senses and diverts the brain’s attention away from processing the pain signals.

The virtual reality of SnowWorld was dreamed up at the University of Washington by two psychologists, Dr. David Patterson and Dr. Hunter Hoffman.

Dr. Patterson had been working with burn patients and he explained that the treatment they have to undergo is excruciating and can feel more painful than getting the burn itself.

“With virtual reality distraction, you're taking a painful procedure like scrubbing off a wound,” Patterson said. “You're just taking the person and putting them in an alternate world. And it works for as long as people seem to be in the virtual world.”

Dr. Hoffman had been using virtual reality to help people confront their fear of spiders. But this time, instead of bringing his patients face to face with what they dreaded most, he'd do the opposite. The doctor decided to give them a soothing icy world to make them forget.

In 2011, the military conducted a small study using SnowWorld and got stunning results. For soldiers in the worst pain, SnowWorld worked better than morphine. And, with thousands of troops having suffered severe burns and trauma from IED blasts, the military is determined to find new ways to treat pain.

WATCH ROCK CENTER VIDEO: Doctor prescribes video game to ease soldier's pain

Dr. Hoffman is surprised when it comes to the therapy’s success.

“The fact that you're getting such huge reductions in pain using something that's not a drug is a paradigm shift,” he said.

For Sam Brown, SnowWorld was a Godsend. For the first time since his accident, he felt relief, without drugs.

“I really had very little sensation of pain, as I had previously experienced,” Brown said.

But it wasn't just SnowWorld that helped Brown recover. He found something even more powerful to heal his pain.

When Lt. Brown was out of the hospital, his dietician Amy Larsen would call and check to make sure he was receiving his nutritional supplements.  One time when she called his old self came through.

“I asked if there was anything else that he needed. And he kind of started to joke around with me a little bit, and he said, 'Can you send me some doughnuts too?'” Larsen laughed. “And then I could tell that Sam kind of wanted to talk a little bit more.”

Brown worked up the courage to ask Larsen out to a rodeo and the two began dating, but at times he couldn't believe that what was happening was real. Brown had convinced himself that no one would ever be able to look beyond his physical scars.

One day a chaplain came to speak with Brown and reassured him he would find someone who would see past his wounds.

Brown said the chaplain told him “Someone will see beyond those scars, will fall in love with you, and you'll have a beautiful family one day."  Laughing in disbelief, Brown dismissed the chaplain’s words, but six months later the chaplain was officiating Larsen and Brown’s wedding.

Three years after the blast Brown and Larsen welcomed a son, Roman, into the world. Brown lives with very little pain now and he says he no longer needs the distraction of SnowWorld.

The combat soldier turned family man has a brighter outlook on the new life around him. Brown said with pride, “The world I have now with Amy, and Roman, and God willing, more children, is all I need.”