Martucci, a mother in a home in New Hampton, New York, was skeptical, but her husband persuaded her to try. She put on the handset and was immediately transported to the beach scene where a soothing voice directed her focus and breathing. A few hours later – which she felt was much less – her doctor came to take off her headset: it was time to push. Soon after, her daughter was born.
The experience she recently told CNN Business was surreal. She had never forgotten that she was at work, but VR visuals and a desperate voice helped her calm down and distract her pain. About three years later, Martucci is pregnant with her third child, who is due in October. She is already talking to her doctor about how she would like to use VR again.
"We're definitely going to get closer to giving birth with VR and no drugs," she said.
While VR does not strike a chord with most users, the headset begins to go out of the labs and into regular medical practice, including birth and delivery. Doctors are beginning to view technology as another tool for combating labor pain and helping to relieve discomfort during general procedures such as the placement of an intrauterine device.
Marchucci is among a very small but growing group of women willing to try this technology, despite the fact that hardly any scientific research supports its effectiveness at birth. Across the country, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa, California has a dozen handsets, including one that patients can use during the early stages of childbirth and for general gynecological procedures.
"Even if you help them relax or have some breathing techniques that they can perform during difficult situations, it's a great trip that I'm glad we started going down," says Jonathan Kurs, general High School at Santa Rosa Memorial.
A Course Without a Brain
The course is one of several doctors interviewed by CNN Business who say they expect BP to become more and more popular for pain relief ̵
Another Possible Reason? People who are interested in VR are often technically younger and younger – the same age group that can also have children.
Melissa Wong, a maternal fetal medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles who studies VR at birth, suspects that the technology's potential as a complementary and alternative method of pain relief will also help VR to get engaged.
"I don't think it's a brain," she said.
But much of these studies refer to single pain events that break out and come back down, such as injection or blood draw. It is only recently that doctors and researchers have begun to learn about how it may be able to help people with longer-term pain, such as women in childbirth. This group is often presented with few options for coping beyond breathing exercises, IV medications, and a lower-body epidural; this is largely due to the complexity of conducting medical studies on pregnant women.
Wong is trying to push forward an understanding of how and whether BP can actually be useful at birth and delivery, conducting her own study, which is expected to be published next spring. Her study, like the University of Michigan, is a randomized, controlled trial – one group of women should use a VR headset while others do not. But it is larger, with 40 patients, and measures what has happened to the patient's pain over a longer period of time.
Wong still could not talk about the specific results, but she said that any participant in the study who tried VR would recommend the technology to other working women.
"Open your heart and receive your baby's love", a female voice pleads with me as brightly colored glowing orbs move in the distance.
I couldn't help but laugh, though the app – the same one Wong used in his study called "Labor Bliss" – was clearly trying to help me survive agonizing contractions.
At the moment I'm not working, but once I experienced it and will do it again in the coming months, so I made a visit to the Santa Rosa Memorial. There I wore a headset and tried to use my past experience and anxiety for the future to imagine what it was like to use VR during a strange, incredibly painful birth experience.
Labor Bliss transports headphones into the desert landscape, with rocks, trees, fireflies and fire. There are voice directions. And that obviously wasn't for me.
I also tried applications that put me underwater while the dolphins swam, and an application that made me stand on a calm shoreline as the waves crashed on the beach; they felt a little less stupid and caught my attention for at least a few moments.
Although they may distract someone who is nervous about taking their blood, the applications did not feel like something that would relax me during childbirth. But VR is not for everyone, even in the best of circumstances. For example, it may make some people nauseous, so the combination of technology with a painful experience like childbirth (which in itself can make you nauseous) can make some patients feel even worse.
"There's just no one-size-fits-all," Wong pointed out.
And as Martucci discovered, it is impossible to predict what will work best until you actually experience it.
"It was surreal," she said. Holy cow, are you kidding me? I did it; how did this equipment help me? "But it really did."