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Virtual reality (VR) may help women cope with pain during repositioning of their breech baby in preparation for delivery.

Monash University trialled 50 pregnant women with VR technology during external cephalic version (ECV).

ECV affects about 3% of pregnancies. At about 37 weeks gestation the baby is manually flipped over by an obstetrician to face head down.

The procedure can by quite painful and currently no pain relief is provided in routine care.

Pregnant women at Monash Women’s in Melbourne undergoing ECV were fitted with VR glasses during their procedure. The immersive VR technology required patients to watch lanterns launch into the sky and click on the headset to light the lanterns before they burst.

Monash University Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Dr Vinayak Smith said VR was well received by the women who said the technology should be offered to all women undergoing ECV.

The VR technique worked by providing a distracting experience designed to reduce the perception of pain, Dr Smith said.

“VR is said to work in two ways to reduce pain – through distraction where pain impulses are blocked or slowed from entering the brain, and on a neurobiological level by reducing the perception of pain experienced by the brain.”

Previous studies had shown VR could reduce pain by up to 25%.

Dr Smith said virtual reality technology had been proven safe and effective in various fields of medicine around the world including for burn patients, paediatric oncology and dental treatment.

The Monash University trial was the first in the world to use virtual reality for pain management in antenatal patients, he said.

“If we continue to see the analgesic benefits of virtual reality, it could be adopted more broadly by hospitals in procedures to reduce pain and anxiety for patients. It may even reduce the need for pain relief medications.”

A trial is underway to test the analgesic effect of VR on pain following laparoscopic surgery. The study could also pave the way for testing VR in alternative obstetric scenarios such as early labour, Dr Smith said.