When children and adults with acute and chronic pain become immersed in video game action, they receive some analgesic benefit, and pain researchers report that virtual reality is proving to be effective in reducing anxiety and acute pain caused by painful medical procedures and could be useful for treating chronic pain.
“Virtual reality produces a modulating effect that is endogenous, so the analgesic influence is not simply a result of distraction but may also impact how the brain responds to painful stimuli,” Jeffrey I. Gold, PhD, associate professor of anesthesiology and pediatrics, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California and director of the Pediatric Pain Management Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, stated in a press release. “The focus is drawn to the game not the pain or the medical procedure, while the virtual reality experience engages visual and other senses.”
While moderating a symposium at the American Pain Society’s Annual Scientific meeting entitled “Virtual Reality and Pain Management,” Gold noted that the exact mechanistic/neurobiological basis responsible for the VR analgesic effect of video games is unknown, but a likely explanation is the immersive, attention-grabbing, multi-sensory and gaming nature of VR. “In my current NIH-funded study, I am using functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure the effects of VR on experimental pain,” Gold explained. “The objective is to measure the cortical regions of interest involved in VR, while exposing the participant to video racing games with and without experimental pain stimuli.”
Lynnda M. Dahlquist, PhD, a clinical child psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, reviewed her most recent laboratory research studies examining the use of virtual reality and other computer/videogame technologies to provide distraction-based acute pain management.
Children interacting with a virtual environment by watching video games demonstrated a small pain tolerance improvement during exposure to ice cold water stimulation, according to Dahlquist, but she recorded significantly greater pain tolerance for kids wearing specially-equipped video helmets when they actually interacted with the virtual environment.
“Our aim is to know what about VRD makes it effective in pain tolerance lab studies with children and what are the best ways to use it for optimum results,” Dahlquist explained, noting that any distraction is better than none at all in pain minimization. “Is it just the amazing graphics in the video games or is it because youngsters are truly more distracted through their direct interaction with the virtual environment?”
VRD’s impact on pain tolerance levels varied by children’s ages, indicating that age may influence how effective video game interaction will be. “We must better understand at what ages VRD provides the greatest benefit in moderating acute pain and at what age, if any, that it can be too much or be limiting.”