Scenes of nature 'reduces pain' for cancer patients

Victoria Falls in Zambia
Image caption Looking at Victoria Falls could make it easier to deal with pain, researchers say

Cancer patients who have to endure excruciating procedures on a daily basis may be able to lessen their pain - by being transported to Zambia.

The patient need not even leave their bed.

Just simply showing relaxing pictures of idyllic scenes and playing out relaxing sounds at a patient's bed is enough reduce the feeling of pain for many patients.

This is according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, United States.

They set up a series of tests analysing patients undergoing bone marrow aspiration and biopsy (BMAB) - known to be a particularly painful form of cancer treatment.

A large needle is inserted into the back of the pelvic bone and bone marrow is drawn out. It can sometimes take up to ten minutes, and is often performed with just a local anaesthetic.

For some cancer sufferers, BMAB is a regular unwanted experience - and techniques such as hypnosis or sedation have been tested to try and help patients deal with the pain.

However, the researchers believe they have come up with a cheap, inexpensive way of making painful procedures like BMAB more bearable.

"We wanted to find a way to improve their experience," explained Noah Lechtzin from the department of medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

"So we did a study in which patients were assigned to either standard care, to have the procedure done with a nature scene and accompanying nature sounds, or a city scene and city sounds.

"We measured pain during the procedure."

The nature scene consisted of typically relaxing images, such as Victoria Falls in Zambia, painted onto bed curtains surrounding the patient as he or she is being treated.

The city scene had pictures of your average urban environment. Busy streets, people rushing - an altogether more stressful experience.

To add to the atmosphere and help with the process, the nature scene added sounds of birds chirping and wind rustling through trees was played to the patient through headphones.

For the city scene, the noise of traffic was played instead.

The found these two simple additions to the hospital environment changed the way patients reacted to the invasive treatment.

Pain Scale

The severity of pain was measured using a ten point scale known as the Hopkins Pain Rating Instrument. Before and after a procedure, patients are asked to indicate how uncomfortable they felt.

Anything above a four is classed as moderate to severe pain.

A control group - which had neither nature nor city scenes - on average marked BMAB as 5.7 on the pain scale.

But, those patients exposed to the nature sounds and images recorded an average of 3.9 on the pain scale - a significant reduction.

The city scene had no significant effect on the ranking - patients found the treatment just as painful.

This, Mr Lechtzin says, shows that the reduction in pain is not simply just a case of distracting the patient.

"I certainly do think distraction must play a role. But there is a lot of thought that there's specific elements to nature that people relate to and have particularly a soothing effect."

He insists that the choice of picture is very important if the theory is to work to its full potential.

"I think there are certain elements of nature that are beneficial and others that could be frightening.

"You wouldn't want to have rocks that potentially dangerous animals could hide behind, whereas our scene was a very open picture that had running water, the sounds had birds chirping and wind rustling through trees - so I think there are certain elements that are helpful."

His hope now is that hospitals will see these findings as a way of cheaply and easily helping patients deal with BMAB and other painful experiences - even if by just adopting the idea of displaying a particular picture.

"It's a large mural that can hang on a hospital curtain, it can be wheeled on a stand from bed-to-bed. Fairly inexpensive, doesn't require any training and is easy to use."

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