Virtual reality games show stunning ability to distraction from pain

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Have you ever played a VR game for so long that you lost awareness of the fact you were playing a game at all? Perhaps you went to sit in a virtual chair, only to thump into the ground and remember, in one embarrassing moment, that the reality you perceived wasn’t real. This same effect, it seems, can effectively distract from the pain of medical procedures.

The Children’s Hospital Los Angeles has reported stunning success using virtual reality headsets and games to distract patients from painful, anxiety-provoking procedures. The details were reported in a new study on how VR impacts the perception of pain and anxiety in kids who undergo these treatments.

Sadly, kids who frequent children’s hospitals often have chronic conditions that may require regular treatment. This alone can produce anxiety, which may be amplified if the child’s treatments are painful or uncomfortable. One simple example is the placement of a peripheral intravenous catheter for an IV.

It was that procedure that researchers with the hospital’s Saban Research Institute used to evaluate the impact of VR on pain and anxiety. Kids in the control group received the catheter placement with traditional calming techniques, while other kids received the catheter placement while playing a VR game.

The game is designed to be simple enough for kids, yet hard enough to require their active participation and focus, according to the researchers. Patients given the VR experience during the procedure reported “significantly lower” anxiety and pain compared to the kids who didn’t get the VR headset.

The use of a VR headset also made things easier on parents and the medical professionals, the study found, noting that calmer, less anxious kids make it easier to place the catheter and that parents are less distressed by the circumstances. Beyond that, a less distressing medical visit may make parents and their kids more likely to follow through with future visits, increasing treatment and improving their health.

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