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Virtual Reality Reduces Pain in Children During Medical Procedures

S u m m a r y :
Using virtual reality (VR) during certain medical procedures, like blood draw, reduces pain in children, says a new study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.

A Virtual Pain-Killer

Having to go through medical procedures is, undoubtedly, stressful, for both adults and children. Even the mere thought of this experience is daunting enough. Then, you have to deal with the actual pain and distress associated with them. Perhaps, part of this pain can be alleviated? A new study conducted by a team of researchers from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles suggests that virtual reality (VR) might be effective to manage pain: they show that the perception of acute pain, anxiety, and distress in both patients (children) and parents can be significantly reduced with VR.

More Powerful Than Distraction

Virtual reality is now part and parcel of pop culture: its applications are broadening day by day. So, the investigators of the new study wanted to know whether VR could help provide a better service to children patients; their aim was to manage pain with VR given that some kids have to undergo painful and distressing medical procedures on a daily basis. Their hypothesis builds up on previous research that describes distraction as an effective way to reduce pain from needles; the authors think that VR would be a more powerful way to drive pain away.

“Given the immersive and engaging nature of the VR experience, this technology has the capacity to act as a preventative intervention transforming the blood draw experience into a less distressing and potentially pain-free medical procedure, particularly for patients with more anxiety about having their blood drawn,” says Jeffrey I. Gold, the director of the Pediatric Pain Management Clinic at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

A Virtual Analgesic Working on Your Brain

Gold and co-author Nicole E. Mahrer describe their technique as “VR analgesia”, a pain management strategy that comes from the neurobiological interactions between brain regions that regulate the senses of sight, hearing, and touch to generate an analgesic effect.

The Kids Loved VR!

The participants of the study, ranging from 10 to 21 years of age, were divided into 2 groups during a blood draw: some received standard care involving a topical anaesthetic cream or spray while a movie is played in the room, and the others had the same care but with an additional virtual reality game.

The observations show that VR is not only feasible and tolerated, but also liked by the patients and their parents and phlebotomists.

“VR, especially immersive VR, draws heavily on the limited cognitive resource of attention by drawing the user’s attention away from the hospital environment and the medical procedures and into the virtual world,” says Gold.

VR vs Narcotics

Another benefit of this strategy is that it might lead to lesser dependency on narcotics to manage pain.

“Ultimately, the aim of future VR investigations should be to develop flexible VR environments to target specific acute and chronic pain conditions,” adds Gold.

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