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Virtual Reality Lets Children Escape Pain

Taking a break from reality eases burn treatment, study finds

THURSDAY, March 3, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Children who immerse themselves in a virtual world feel less pain.

That's the conclusion of a study in the March 2 issue of BMC Pediatrics that found when children who had suffered severe burns were allowed to play virtual reality games as their wound dressings were being changed, they felt significantly less pain.

"This study provides strong evidence supporting virtual reality-based games in providing analgesia with minimal side effects and little impact on the physical hospital environment, as well as its reusability and versatility, suggesting another option in the management of children's pain," wrote the study's authors.

"Pain is an emotional and sensory experience," said Allen Lebovits, co-director of the New York University Medical Center's Pain Management Center. "When you use distraction, people generally don't feel their pain as badly. This is the wave of the future for pain management."

For the study, the Australian researchers asked seven children who had suffered burns on more than 3 percent of their bodies to participate in the trial. Burns are very painful, especially when the wounds must be cleaned and dressings changed. Strong painkillers are usually given during these procedures. Side effects from these medications can include fatigue and nausea.

The children were between the ages of 5 and 18. Their burns came from either hot water, hot oil, playing with gas and fire, or the muffler on an all-terrain vehicle.

All of the children were given pain medication, and then some played a virtual reality game while their dressing was being taken off, while the others played the game when their dressings were being reapplied.

The virtual reality game setup included headgear to block out other visual and auditory input, and a pointer. The games were designed specifically for this study and were adjusted to be age-appropriate. The game involved the feeling of being on a track and participants had to aim and shoot at monsters.

Later, the children were asked to rate their pain during the wound dressing change with just pain medication, and with both medication and the virtual reality game. They rated their pain using the "Faces Scale," which shows five different faces and assigns a number to the face. For example, extreme pain is rated 10 and shows an unhappy, crying face. The face for no pain is smiling broadly.

When they just had pain medications, the average pain score was 4.1, but it was just 1.3 when the children were also playing the game.

"The use of virtual imaging and other distracting techniques, like playing Gameboy, may play a significant role in reducing pain and anxiety in children in the future," said Dr. Santhanam Suresh, co-director of the pain treatment service at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

He said they're already using video games in the emergency room at his hospital to help relieve pain and anxiety in youngsters.

"There's not one perfect method to alleviate pain and discomfort," he said. "We need to use an all-encompassing approach, using medications, alternative therapies and distraction."

The study authors wrote that the next step is to see if virtual reality can reduce pain on its own.

In the meantime, if your child is going to have a potentially painful procedure, Lebovits recommends consulting a pediatric pain specialist first and to work with the doctor or nurse to come up with ways to distract the child. Also, he said, it can help to have a favorite toy or teddy bear, something that the child is attached to. He also recommends holding or rubbing your child's hand during the procedure.

"Anything that can distract from the painful stimulus is potentially helpful," he said.

More information

Read this article from the American Psychological Association to learn more about using virtual reality games for pain relief.

SOURCES: Allen Lebovits, Ph.D., co-director, New York University Medical Center's Pain Management Center, and associate professor, departments of anesthesiology and psychiatry, New York University School of Medicine, New York City; Santhanam Suresh, M.D., co-director, pain treatment service, Children's Memorial Hospital, and associate professor, anesthesiology and pediatrics, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago; March 2, 2005, BMC Pediatrics
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