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Can A Video Game End Pain?

Can A Video Game End Pain?

Virtual reality is helping the way we treat pain.

Can a video game end pain?

Wednesday, June 1, 2016 - 14:15

Karin Heineman, ISTV Executive Producer

Virtual reality has transformed the gaming world – now it’s helping to change the way we treat pain – find out how V.R. games can help ease pain.

The goal of this virtual reality game isn’t to beat out your opponent or destroy aliens – it’s to help put a stop to pain –  it’s a technique that helps distract patients from painful procedures.

“We’ve found that virtual reality can get patients through any number of painful procedures.  We focused on burn care.  It’s an elaborate distraction, a way to pull people’s attention away from the procedure itself and the pain the procedure causes,” said David Patterson, a psychologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

According to Hunter Hoffman, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Washington, “burn patients most of the time their pain is well controlled by pain medications.  But during certain procedures when they’re having their wounds cleaned, for example or when they’re doing physical therapy stretching exercise, the pain is much higher and is often uncontrolled pain.”

The virtual game called Snow World, immerses patients into an alternate reality where they can swoop through an icy, snowy canyon and throw snowballs at snowmen, penguins and igloos.

“What’s exciting about Snow World is it’s a paradigm shift away from just relying solely on pain medications, and shows the power of the human mind for helping patients control their own pain,” said Hoffman.

The experience is so engaging that patients have reported great success. 

Hoffman also said, “we’re finding that, that drastically reduced their subjective experience of how much pain they feel.” 

To test the virtual game – the pain patients might feel during a procedure is simulated with a thermal device on a volunteer’s skin.  It creates brief periods of heat-related pain. It doesn’t harm, but it’s enough to cause a reaction.  Volunteers are then asked to rate their pain when playing the game. Researchers are working to find out whether the virtual reality game affects the brain in the same way pain medications do. 

“We’ve also done brain scan studies showing large reductions in pain related brain activity during virtual reality,” said Hoffman. Researchers found that regions of the brain that register pain showed the least amount of activity with a combination of virtual reality and pain medication. Hoffman said, “we’re not replacing the pain meds, but we’re amplifying the effectiveness of the overall pain control by using this non pharmacologic approach.”

Using the V.R. approach to distract attention away from discomfort is the ultimate 3D reality experience.

“Ultimately the more we can get their attention, capture their attention the more pain relief there’s going to be,” said Patterson.

Get Inside the Science

Virtual Reality Games Reduce Pain, Now to Answer Why

Virtual Reality Pain Reduction, University of Washington Seattle and U.W. Harborview Burn Center

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Author Bio & Story Archive

Karin Heineman

Karin Heineman is the executive producer of Inside Science TV.