Breathe, focus, headset: The women turning to VR during childbirth

NEW YORK — While in labor with her second child, in November 2016, Erin Martucci’s doctor suggested an unorthodox option to quell her anxiety about giving birth without the pain relief of an epidural: a virtual-reality headset.

Martucci, a stay-at-home mother from New Hampton, New York, was skeptical, but her husband convinced her to give it a try. She put on the headset, and was immediately transported to a beach scene, where a soothing voice guided her focus and breathing. A couple hours later — which to her felt like much less — her doctor came to take the headset off: it was time to push. Soon after, her daughter was born.

The experience, she recently told CNN Business, was surreal. She never forgot she was in labor, but the VR visuals and the disembodied voice helped her calm down and shift attention away from her pain. Nearly three years later, Martucci is pregnant with her third child, due in October. She’s already spoken to her doctor about how she’d like to use VR again.

“We’re definitely going to approach the birth with using VR and going drug free,” she said.

While VR hasn’t struck a chord with most consumers, headsets are starting to come out of labs and into regular medical practice, including in labor and delivery. Doctors are starting to see the technology as another tool to combat labor pain and help ease discomfort during common procedures such as the insertion of an intrauterine device.

Martucci is among a very small but growing group of women willing to try this technology, despite the fact that hardly any scientific research backs its efficacy during labor. Across the country from her, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa, California, has a dozen headsets, including one that patients can use during the early stages of labor and for common in-office gynecologic procedures.

“Even just helping them relax or have certain breathing techniques they can perform during difficult situations is a great avenue that I’m glad that we’ve started walking down,” said Jonathan Kurss, an ob-gyn at Santa Rosa Memorial.

A no-brainer

Kurss is one of several doctors interviewed by CNN Business who said they expect VR to become increasingly popular for pain relief — and for labor specifically — in the coming years. One big reason, Kurss suspects, is a shift by US hospitals and physicians to find non-medical options for pain management in response to the country’s ongoing opioid epidemic.

Another possible reason? The people interested in VR are often tech-savvy and younger — the same age group who may also be having kids.

Melissa Wong, a maternal fetal medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles who studies VR during labor, suspects the technology’s potential as a complementary and alternative method for relieving pain will also help VR catch on.

“I think it’s a no-brainer,” she said.

The pain-relieving aspects of virtual reality have been studied for years. While it’s not yet clear why VR can reduce pain and anxiety, researchers tend to believe it’s related to the medium’s power of distraction.

But much of that research relates to single events of pain that spike and come back down, like an injection or a blood draw. It’s only recently that doctors and researchers have begun to learn about how it may be able to help people with longer-lasting pain, such as women in labor. This group is often presented with few options for coping beyond breathing exercises, IV drugs, and a lower-body-numbing epidural; in large part that’s because of the complexities of conducting medical studies on pregnant women.

So far, there are just a few studies on the topic, such as one from the University of Michigan. It included 27 women using VR headsets during unmedicated contractions and found that the technology may be effective for helping with pain and anxiety during labor.

Wong is trying to push forward an understanding of how and whether VR might actually be useful in labor and delivery by leading a study of her own, which she expects to be published next spring. Her study, like the University of Michigan’s, is a randomized, controlled trial — one group of women got to use VR headsets while others didn’t. But it’s bigger, with 40 patients, and measures what happened to patients’ pain over a longer period of time.

Wong can’t speak about the specific results yet, but she said that every participant in the study who tried VR said they’d recommend the technology to other laboring women.

Labor bliss?

“Open your heart and receive your baby’s love,” a woman’s voice implored me, as brightly colored glowing orbs levitated in the distance.

I couldn’t help but laugh, even though the app — the same one Wong used in her study, called “Labor Bliss” — was ostensibly trying to help me get through agonizing contractions.

I’m not currently in labor, but I’ve gone through it once and will do so again in the coming months, so I made a visit to Santa Rosa Memorial. There, I donned a headset and tried to harness my past experience and anxiety about the future to imagine what it’s like to use VR during the weird, incredibly painful experience of giving birth.

“Labor Bliss” transports headset wearers to a wilderness landscape, with rocks, trees, fireflies and a campfire. There’s voice guidance. And it clearly wasn’t for me.

The app was created by a Los Angeles startup called AppliedVR (Cedars-Sinai invested in the company). CEO Matthew Stoudt says more than 130 hospitals are currently using his company’s VR platform in regular medical practice, including Santa Rosa Memorial and Cedars-Sinai.

I also tried apps that placed me underwater as dolphins swam by, and an app that had me stand on a peaceful shoreline as waves crashed on the beach; these felt a little less silly and captured my attention for a few moments, at least.

Though they might distract someone who’s nervous about getting their blood drawn, the apps didn’t feel like the kind of thing that would relax me during childbirth. But VR isn’t for everyone, even under the best of circumstances. It can, for example, make some people feel nauseated, so the combination of the technology with a painful experience such as labor (which itself can make you feel nauseous) may make some patients feel even worse.

“There’s just no one-size-fits all to any of this,” Wong pointed out.

And, as Martucci discovered, it’s impossible to predict what will work best until you’re actually going through it.

“It was surreal,” she said. “‘Holy cow are you kidding me? I did it; how did this equipment help me?’ But it really did.”

Notice: you are using an outdated browser. Microsoft does not recommend using IE as your default browser. Some features on this website, like video and images, might not work properly. For the best experience, please upgrade your browser.