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Using virtual reality as a distraction for painful pediatric procedures

Virtual reality headsets, similar to those available for personal use, could soon be used in pediatric hospitals across the country.

Virtual reality, often pictured on the heads of avid gamers in the U.S., is finding a new purpose in an unexpected place: pediatric pain management.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Jeffrey Gold, director of the Pediatric Pain Management Clinic in the Department of Anesthesiology Critical Care Medicine at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, is the lead of a new study examining the effectiveness of virtual reality for kids undergoing painful procedures. He spoke with “Take Care” about the ways VR can be used to help children through typically painful, high-stress procedures.

VR was first introduced in a pediatric setting for the purposes of attenuating pain during procedures that require a calm demeanor by providing a distraction for the children’s eyes and minds. Gold said that more than 300 children have gone through treatment with the help of VR at the hospital, and so far, he has seen a lot of success.

“It’s a very engaging process for the kids to play and to want to get to that next level,” Gold said. “What we know is through attention and concentration and focus…that you can engage more attention and concentration into the game and away from the procedure that’s happening.”

The key is to create stimulating games that are appropriate for every age group, Gold said. Fortunately, none of the children who have experienced the VR treatment so far have reported discomfort, such as the simulator sickness that has sometimes been reported with adult usage. Mostly, the reactions are overwhelmingly positive.

"It's important to be able to regulate emotion toward pain, as well as pain toward emotion."

“When we first approach a potential participant, and we introduce the study, they’re often very excited…and they’re interested and they want to play,” Gold said. “Often, when they’re done playing, they’ll say things like they want to do that again.”

The VR system creates an amusing experience for the children and the parents and adults who look on, Gold said.

“It’s kind of a funny experience,” Gold said. “They’re just watching the kid move around with the head-mounted display, and they’re just so shocked how calm and relaxed the kid is. And often, kids will finish and ask, ‘Have you drawn my blood yet?’”

Thanks to the success in pediatric settings, Gold has helped introduce VR into Botox centers for treatment of contractures in children. The first child who experienced VR during this procedure was completely still, and Gold said that led the mother to declare it a miracle.

Gold said the children who benefited most from VR treatment are those with heightened anxiety sensitivity. Through the engagement in the experience, they can downregulate their physical reactions to relax their body.

“It’s important to be able to regulate emotion toward pain, as well as pain toward emotion,” Gold said.

It is still too early in VR science to predict precisely which children would be better suited to a VR treatment, but Gold said he sees a bright future for VR in the treatment of acute and chronic pain management and anxiety and stress minimization.