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How virtual reality is now assisting women in labour



A new trial is being rolled out at the University of Cardiff, Wales, to see if women can manage pain in childbirth with the use of virtual reality headsets.


Virtual reality (VR) is becoming more common use in medicine having already been previously used in circumstances such as helping burns victims deal with excruciating pain and even as a method of treating post-traumatic stress disorder.


If you’re not familiar with what a virtual reality headset does, it is basically a head set that you wear which displays and allows viewers to interact within a 360 degree simulated environment. These have originally been used in gaming but now are being explored in therapies. You can read a good article about the use of VR as therapy for pain here:


https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/29/well/live/virtual-reality-as-therapy-for-pain.html


The idea of the VR is essentially for patients to immerse themselves within a world that makes them feel peaceful. This distracts them from being in hospital and from whatever pain they may be experiencing.

During early labour, women are being given use of these headsets for relaxation purposes and to help manage pain. Generally, a hospital visit does not bring about a feeling of wellbeing and ease. Hospitals are usually associated with illness, disease and trauma. So when a woman might present herself to hospital during labour, the feeling of being in a space that is generally associated with discomfort is not actually very conducive to an efficient labour.


For a mother to labour well, she will need a good production of the hormone called oxytocin. This hormone is generally inhibited when she is not feeling calm and at ease, leading to problems such as causing contractions to slow down or stop completely. This can then be the starting point to a cascade of medical interventions should the care providers feel that labour is not “progressing”.


To promote production of oxytocin in labour and birth, it is important that the mother stays calm and comfortable within her environment with minimal disruption and disturbance.


Hypnobirthing teaches its students how to remain calm and comfortable within any environment so that they can assist their bodies with the production of oxytocin. In essence, hypnobirthing utilises the power of the mind/body connection, which is what the VR headsets aim to do also. A typical hospital setting can interfere with the body’s natural processes so it is fantastic that VR is now being looked into to counteract this.


Learning hypnobirthing techniques means you have a toolkit that you can take with you wherever you go. You can use hypnobirthing anywhere and at anytime and it is always on hand. It is a powerful way to assist in keeping your mind calm and confident and in turn, allowing for the body to get on and do what it knows how to do. We don’t need to consciously think about how to birth our babies; this has been done for us. Just as the body knows how to breathe without consciously telling it to, our body knows how to give birth.


Humans along with other mammals are designed to give birth when feeling relaxed and safe. If our environment is not conducive to being private and undisturbed then our bodies simply will not allow us to give birth efficiently. This is a normal biological mechanism that we have, as we are not designed to give birth when we feel any form of threat.


Research has shown evidence to suggest that hypnobirthing decreases the need for pharmacological pain relief in labour including use of epidural; reduces augmentation of labour and increases the incidence of spontaneous vaginal birth. Hypnosis use is also associated with improved maternal wellbeing and satisfaction. *


It will be interesting to see the results of the trial for virtual reality in labour. I would imagine that the use of such technology to manage pain will be a highly popular choice for many and it is great to see tech being used in this way.



* 2. Smith CA, Collins CT, Cyna AM, and Crowther CA. Complementary and alternative therapies for pain management in labour (Review) Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2006, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD003521. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003521.pub2.

Available from: www.evidence.nhs.uk/nhs-evidence-content/journals-and-databases

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