For people in severe pain, even maximum doses of narcotics can be inadequate — and potentially dangerous. What such patients need, some researchers say, is a method to help control pain without using those drugs.

Their quest for such a therapy has led them to an unlikely analgesic: virtual reality.

Studies have shown that it can dull pain by distracting patients, leaving less conscious attention available to process pain signals. “Humans have a limited amount of attention, and it’s hard to do two things at once,” says Hunter G. Hoffman, a psychologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

In the last few years, he and his colleagues have tested virtual reality as a pain-management tool. The results of one of their first studies — on 12 burn patients having their bandages changed — suggested they were onto something.

In addition to receiving painkillers, patients spent some of their time in a virtual-reality session and some playing a video game. The game had no effect. During the virtual-reality session, however, patients reported that their pain lessened an average of 40% to 50%.

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