When it comes to surgery, I think most of us would agree that anaesthetic is a good thing — and the more the better, thankyouverymuch. But there are some types of surgery where you need the patient to be conscious, and not just the kind in gratuitously graphic horror movies. 

Patients undertaking hand surgery, for example, usually get a regional anaesthetic that keeps them calm, but awake enough to follow instructions as required. Too much sedative can not only lead to a lack of responsiveness when required, but some pretty nasty complications including heart attack, stroke and respiratory failure. All things that are best avoided, qualified doctors would agree.

Researchers have been testing a novel way of reducing the quantity of sedative required to keep the patient comfortable, thus avoiding such risks: VR headsets. In a study at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre, patients undergoing hand surgery were given either sedatives alone (propofol) or VR headsets with a calming scene, combined with a sedative dripped on request.

The results were pretty astonishing. Only four of the 17 patients in the VR group requested any propofol at all, and of those that did want some sweet, sweet pain relief, the median requested amount was 260mg less than those without the headset. They were also discharged from the hospital an average of 22 minutes earlier than those treated with sedatives alone.

There are certainly things to question about the study. For one thing, a total of 34 patients tested isn’t enough to be sure the effect is real. For another, if a patient is told that VR might make them need less anaesthetic, there’s a chance it could operate as a kind of placebo in and of itself. In other words, follow-up studies are definitely needed.

All the same, the potential benefits for hospitals are obvious. Less anaesthetic required means lower expense per op, and being able to discharge patients faster frees up beds faster, meaning patients are seen faster. Against that, the cost of keeping a few Meta Quest headsets charged and on hand seems pretty minor…