Virtual pain relief for children

Children who have the distraction of a virtual reality game while undergoing post-operative physiotherapy, report a significant decrease in their experience of pain, new research at the University of South Australia has found.

In the first study of its kind carried out with children, researchers at UniSA’s Centre for Allied Health Evidence and Schools of Computer and Information Science and Health Sciences (Physiotherapy) in conjunction with the University of Washington’s Human Interface Technology Laboratory, report that a little virtual reality helps to minimise post-operative pain for children.

Research project leader, Associate Professor Karen Grimmer said the UniSA project found a 41.2 per cent reduction in pain for children who tried the new technology.

“Pain management for children is quite complex. There are issues with dosages, a stronger impact from side effects and in some cases children simply can’t tolerate traditional pharmacological agents,” Professor Grimmer said.

“Following some very promising research in the United States with adult burns victims and the use of virtual reality as a form of analgesia, we have been exploring how we might adapt this technology for children who suffer pain post surgery.

“Working across disciplines we have developed a virtual reality game and trialed its use on children with cerebral palsy who have undergone surgery to ligaments in their legs to avert spasticity. The surgery is followed by a fairly harrowing amount of physiotherapy to encourage recovery and movement in the limbs.”

Over a six-day period the children trialing the virtual reality headset and game were given normal pain medications but were able to use the game in addition to the medication for half (order randomised) of their twice-daily physiotherapy sessions.

Asked to scale their pain using five faces, denoting levels of pain, the patients’ overall pain ratings while using the virtual reality game were significantly lower than without the game.

The virtual reality game is based on an existing video game, which has been extensively modified by researchers from UniSA’s Wearable Computer Laboratory led by Associate Professor Bruce Thomas.

Children undergoing treatment wear head mounted goggles and a computer projects images onto the goggles, which are mini monitors. Using their hands to control a normal computer mouse, the children aim to shoot monsters that appear while they drive a train carriage through a castle.

Because they are restricted, maybe lying down while having treatment, the children cannot dictate where they are going within the game, but have to watch what is happening otherwise they may get ‘shot’.

The game is mentally stimulating, which distracts the children and takes their mind off the pain that they are experiencing. The other good news, according to Ben Close, research associate at the Wearable Computer Laboratory, is that most of the kids enjoyed playing the game.

Professor Grimmer says the research marks an important and promising first step in developing technologies to help children through illnesses that have a high pain factor.

“I think we all acknowledge that pain can be very demotivating, especially for children who may need to work through exercise regimes to achieve full recovery or improvement post surgery,” Professor Grimmer said.

“With more support for this research we may be able to open a whole new chapter in pain management for children across a range of illnesses. The whole notion of computer games, virtual reality technologies and their impact on children has come in for some negative press in recent years. Being able to embrace those technologies to achieve something that could make a powerful positive impact on sick children and enhance their recovery is something worth working towards.”


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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