Medical researchers in Washington know that throwing virtual snowballs at virtual snowmen, virtual penguins and virtual igloos can reduce pain in the real world. For 15 years now, burn patients at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle have been playing SnowWorld, a virtual reality game, while receiving care for their wounds, reporting significantly reduced pain, according to HSNewsBeat.

But the news service of the University of Washington Health Sciences and UW Medicine says that researchers now are trying to find out the cause of the pain reduction to determine if it can be improved upon, and think they may be able to do so.

Though the research is being done using a pain-generating device that draws up memories of Peter Venkman’s research in the movie "Ghostbusters," Sam Sharar, M.D., a UW professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine, says in the article that the pain experienced by the research subjects is not intolerable. He adds that there are no lasting effects; the pain registers about a six or seven on a 10-point scale.

Early results indicate that the game’s ability to reduce pain is based on its immersive capabilities rather than the release of pain-reducing endorphins, according to the article. That suggests that a video game that is even more engaging would improve the effectiveness of the technique, possibly done with the assistance of a low dose of the drug ketamine, which produces enhanced sensory perception.

Early indications are positive. “We may be able to improve the effect of virtual reality not by changing the hardware or by changing the software, but by changing the user,” Sharar told the news service.

In other medical advancements:

  • Phrase Health won the Closing the Data Divide virtual challenge, which sought ways to improve data exchange between care providers and public health agencies.
  • CareAngel, a virtual caregiver that interacts with patients, is in Beta-testing and was presented at the Aging2.0 Global Startup Search earlier this month.
  • Henry Heimlich, M.D., inventor of the Heimlich maneuver, performed his namesake maneuver on a choking patient.