I came across an article from National Geographic recently. A man, who admittedly is an adrenaline junky, fell off his roof while repairing it. He landed on his heels, which shattered, then on his hip, and finally on his wrist – both broke as well. His phone had fallen out of his pocket during the fall, but he managed to “crawl” the twenty feet to retrieve it and call 911 with his good hand.
He lucked out. The med flight landed him at the hospital that just happened to have the best foot doctor in the world. But this story is not about his feet; it’s about his pelvis, which also was broken.
If you’ve ever had an external fixator, you will, as I do, relate to this story. For the uninitiated, an external fixator is a stainless steel bar that keeps a part of the body stable. It is outside of the body, but it is anchored directly into the bones, going through skin, muscle, and tissue. I had two. One went all the way down my left leg, as my medical team desperately tried to salvage it (and we all know how that turned out.) The other one was, like this man, a pelvic exfix. My pelvic exfix was installed to stabilize my sacrum, which was cracked open. For five months I was not able to sit up more than 45 degrees (and I couldn’t get out of bed, either). It was uncomfortable, but not painful. The leg exfix didn’t bother me as I didn’t have a lot of feeling there anyway.
This man had very long internal pins screwed into his pelvis which were attached to his exfix – more invasive than mine, so removal for him was a much more complicated procedure. His doctor asked him to be a “lab rat” for a study on VR pain therapy, and he was happy to oblige. The normal removal of this device was another surgery that included intubation, which he did not want. They fitted him with a VR headset and loaded a program they thought would be best for the procedure. When they removed the first pin using VR, his pain was significantly reduced. As a control, they then removed the second pin without surgery. His pain was intense. The brain scans show that his pain level using VR was half of the pain without – the difference is quite dramatic.
As it suggests, during VR pain therapy, the patient is flooded with visual images, which distracts them from the pain – a diversion. Second, it is usually a game of some sort, which requires the patient to focus on a virtual task, which further distracts. For some patients, more difficult games require even more concentration. Using more effort to win the game results in an even higher reduction in pain.
My leg exfix was removed late in the afternoon, after 5 p.m. The time is important here because the in-house pharmacist was not in the rehab facility at the time.. Someone dropped the ball and did not order any pain medication for my procedure. They just started taking out the screws. Now, I know pain, as many of us, unfortunately, do. But this is pain I will never forget. Excruciating does not cut it. Four screws, and a lot of screaming and crying – this is not hyperbole. After the first screw (top of my thigh, through my quad), the team started scrambling for med pains – none to be had. Why? No pharmacist to fill any scripts. This started a flurry of activity of finding emergency medicine from another facility. But the procedure had started and it had to be finished. Three more screws, each more painful than the previous one. I’m surprised I didn’t break the hand of the nurse who was holding mine. I cried the entire three hours it took them to find medication; I’ll never forget that day. It’s not like having a baby, where you “forget” the pain.
I sure could have made use of VR that day. When it came time to have my pelvic exfix removed, I was in such a state of panic that, for the first time in my life, I needed anxiety medication. My thought process told me that these screws were much bigger than the ones in my leg, going through a much larger bone. I was terrified. This procedure was done in the hospital, but I was not sedated. The doctor came in, unscrewed them both within five minutes, cleaned up the holes and bandaged them. Easy-peasy with absolutely no pain. I’m not sure why this procedure was not as painful as the leg exfix, but I was incredibly grateful. At least it was done at the hospital, where pain meds would have been available had I needed them. How less stressful both of these procedures could have been with VR.
I had many procedures during my recovery where VR pain therapy would have been a welcome alternative, or addition, to procedures that caused pain.VR pain therapy has been explored for some time, but we, as patients, need to start a grassroots effort to make it a mainstream alternative/pain supplement. If you are facing painful procedures and/or therapies, I highly suggest you ask your medical caregivers to consider VR. I am now in my sixth decade; I do not own a VR, but many younger people do. Try using it when you have pain. We all want to reduce the amount of meds we take for nerve pain, and it may just work for you.
Here is the link if you’d like to read the article.Please note that I read this article for the information about VR, not about his self-sabotaging adrenaline junkie personality. (I’m not judging, as we all know the impatience of wanting to get back to normal as soon as possible, but he did have setbacks that were directly related to his need to “get back out there” before he was ready.)
And remember: You never know how much strength you have until you are called upon to use it.