Using Video Games to Manage Pain

Pain management is the latest target of software developers: Researchers are creating and testing interactive games designed to help young patients cope with discomfort.

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Today's personal health report is about a way to fight pain with video games. Researchers are trying to figure out how to soothe anxious kids who are undergoing painful medical treatments. The latest idea is to bring the sights and sounds of the ocean to the hospital using a virtual reality scuba game. What these scientists are testing is whether interactive games can distract children from their pain. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY reporting:

For years, children undergoing uncomfortable medical treatments have been given a rubber ball and told, `Squeeze hard when it hurts.' But in a hospital or clinical setting, that's not enough, says psychologist Lynn Dahlquest(ph). Kids are often too distracted by the comings and goings of doctors and nurses, the sight of needles and tubes and often their anxious parents.

Ms. LYNN DAHLQUEST (Psychologist): So a lot of children develop what we call conditioned anxiety reaction, where they associate coming to the clinic with pain, and they have a lot of fear associated with it, and when that escalates, it's really hard to break that chain.

AUBREY: So last year, Dahlquest was intrigued when a group called the Believe in Tomorrow Children's Foundation approached her. They provide toys and entertainment to hospitalized kids. The group's founder wanted her to do some experiments. He'd been working with game developers to design a virtual reality scuba diving game. At first Dahlquest was skeptical.

Ms. DAHLQUEST: I always tried to avoid technology. I'm not particularly good with it, so I never thought I'd be studying virtual reality, per se.

AUBREY: But what she's seen so far in her research has convinced her there's real potential. Fifth-grader Natalie O'Hare(ph) is one of her subjects, and on this visit to Dahlquest's lab, Natalie sits in front of a computer screen and puts on a helmet.

(Soundbite of bubbling water)

AUBREY: This underwater soundtrack plays in stereo inside the helmet as research assistant Lindsey Dillinger(ph) gets the game started.

Ms. LINDSEY DILLINGER (Research Assistant): All right, Natalie. There's a joy stick for you to use.

AUBREY: With the helmet's 3-D goggles, sea turtles and colorful fish float and swim. Coral reef and sea grasses sway.

NATALIE O'HARE (Fifth-Grader): It feels like you're really underwater and as if you were actually there.

AUBREY: Natalie O'Hare keeps her right hand on the joy stick. She can skim the ocean floor, explore caves or swim to the surface. The goal of the game is to uncover hidden treasure chests.

O'HARE: And that's what I'm really looking for. Like, I just venture around, but mostly that's what I'm looking for is the treasure.

AUBREY: As the game occupies her attention, the researchers put Natalie's left hand in icy cold water. This is meant as a pain stimulus. Dahlquest explains it's a sort of stand-in for the pain of a shot that kids would receive during medical treatment.

Ms. DAHLQUEST: I've had some children pull their hand out at seven seconds.

AUBREY: Other kids are much more tolerant. Dahlquest has each child in her study do the icy water treatment three times. The first time they dip their hands, there's no distraction of a video game. They're basically sitting in a quiet room with a bucket of water. The second time, the kids hear the scuba soundtrack and see the ocean images, but they don't play the interactive games, such as hunting for treasure. Dahlquest adds these interactive components the third time around, and what she discovered when she tallied up how long the kids endured the cold water is that it's this interactivity that seems to be the key.

Ms. DAHLQUEST: You can just see the huge jump in pain tolerance when they're interacting with the game.

AUBREY: The kids held their hands in water about three times longer when they were playing the game. Dahlquest is presenting her findings to a group gathered for the Games for Health Conference. The project is the brainchild of gaming expert Ben Sawyer, who's playing a pivotal role in bringing medical researchers together with game developers. Sawyer says there are dozens of applications and developments. One of the latest is called Glucoboy, that combines a glucose meter used by kids with diabetes with a Game Boy.

Mr. BEN SAWYER (Gaming Expert): Now it doesn't become this sort of stigma-style device to bring into a fourth-grade classroom. Not only that, what if, when you take care of your diabetes and that monitor gives you good readings, the games on the Game Boy respond to that? And so now you're incentivized and you're motivated.

AUBREY: To manage your health using games. The application is novel, but Sawyer says there seem to be a lot of true believers. One researcher with a new idea caught him on the fly as he was checking into the hotel for the conference.

Mr. SAWYER: I hadn't even put my suitcase down to get into my room, and I had already had a meeting downstairs with a doctor from John Hopkins who was looking at new ways to get patients to give them information before they go into the OR.

AUBREY: He says the idea is to have patients create themselves as a character on a computer screen.

Mr. SAWYER: Much the way you might input yourself into a calming computer sports game, like Tiger Woods golf.

AUBREY: The idea is, this might save time and limit mistakes. But in order for this game or any of the other games for health to be accepted, researchers must prove their value.

Ms. DAHLQUEST: There is no way hospitals, clinics, private practitioners are gonna use virtual reality technology if it's not proven to be more effective than a simpler technique.

AUBREY: And when it comes to pain management, this may mean comparing the old-fashioned squeeze ball and the virtual reality scuba game side by side. Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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