Virtual reality games are showing promise as a tool to combat pain. A research project is studying the analgesic effects of virtual reality environments and how they impact the way patients’ brains respond to pain.
“Virtual reality produces a modulating effect that is endogenous, so the analgesic influence is not simply a result of distraction but may also impact how the brain responds to painful stimuli,”explains Dr. Jeffrey I. Gold, associate professor of anaesthesiology and paediatrics, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California. “The focus is drawn to the game not the pain or the medical procedure, while the virtual reality experience engages visual and other senses.” More…
Presenting at the annual scientific meeting of the American Pain Society, specialists and researchers reviewed their findings in the field of virtual reality games.
Dr. Lynnda M. Dahlquist, a clinical child psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, revealed details from her recent laboratory research examining the use of virtual reality and other computer and video game technologies to provide distraction-based acute pain management.
In one pilot study involving 100 children having blood drawn, those immersed in a virtual 3D environment felt less pain than those who watched a cartoon or who played video games on a flat screen. There was less distress for the technician and the parent as well. On the other hand, the researcher recorded significantly greater pain tolerance for kids wearing specially-equipped video helmets when they actually interacted with the virtual environment.
While early results are promising, Dahlquist emphasizes that more research is needed to know for certain if virtual reality would play the same distracting role in such pain-generating procedures as cleansing wounds, cancer treatment, immunization, injections and burn care. However, one preliminary study showed a reduction of 30 to 50 percent in pain ratings during severe burn wound care while patients using virtual reality during physical therapy reported greater reductions in the amount of time spent thinking about pain and its intensity.
Game Tackles Alcohol Recovery
The University of Central Florida and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Charleston, SC, have developed a video game to help recovering alcoholics avoid falling off the wagon and reintegrate into sober life. Entitled Guardian Angel, the game is a project under the Health Games Research program.
The mini game-based software leads players through the choices recovering alcoholics must face in their rehabilitation. Players start the game with no job or driver’s license, for example, and have to plan their daily travels to avoid liquor stores and other triggers. A “craving meter” takes note of the player’s stress levels and emotional state. Too much stress and emotional volatility will push the character to relapse.
Dr. Marcia Verduin, from the University of Central Florida is one of the lead project researchers. She explains that with this game, recovering alcoholics will have the chance to make these mistakes in a virtual world, rather than in real life. Learning these relapse skills in a game is also meant to make the learning process more enjoyable.
Trials are expected to continue until fall 2010. Once the research is completed, the project developers plan on making the game available online at no cost.
Visually-Impaired Gamers can Get Fit Too
Another research project, this time from the University of Nevada, Reno, has found a way to let the visually impaired play fitness games. Called VI Fit, and loosely inspired by Nintendo`s Wii Fit, the free games can be played using the Wii Remote and a Bluetooth-enabled PC.
“Lack of vision forms a significant barrier to participation in physical activity, and consequently children with visual impairments have much higher obesity rates and obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes,” said Eelke Folmer, lead researcher on the project.
In VI Tennis, players get audio and vibration cues letting them know when to serve and return the ball. In VI Bowling, vibrotactile feedback shows players where to throw the virtual bowling ball. In an evaluation of the game, participants were found to exert as much energy playing VI Bowling as if they had spent the same amount of time walking.
Additional research on this project was done in collaboration with experts from the State University of New York, Cortland and the Department of Kinesiology, Sports Studies, and Physical Education at SUNY. The PC games can be downloaded for free on the VI Fit website.