Virtual reality can be effectively used to manage pain and anxiety in children undergoing distressing medical procedures, scientists say. Virtual reality (VR) has emerged into popular culture with an ever-widening array of applications including clinical use in a paediatric healthcare centre. Children undergo necessary yet painful and distressing medical procedures every day, but very few non-pharmaceutical interventions have been found to successfully manage the pain and anxiety associated with these procedures.
Researchers at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles in the US conducted a study to determine if VR can be effectively used for pain management during blood draw. Their findings showed that VR significantly reduced patients’ and parents’ perception of acute pain, anxiety and general distress during the procedure.
“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,” said Jeffrey I Gold, from the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
While previous research supported the effectiveness of distraction during painful procedures, specifically needle pain, researchers hypothesised that the new VR technology, an arguably more powerful and immersive intervention could be even more effective at reducing pain and anxiety. Researchers theorise that ‘VR analgesia’ or pain control originates from the neurobiological interplay of the parts of the brain that regulate the visual, auditory, and touch sensory experience to produce an analgesic effect.
For the study, they recruited patients, ages 10 to 21 years, the patient’s caregiver and the phlebotomist in the outpatient blood draw clinic, and randomised them to receive either standard of care, which typically includes a topical anaesthetic cream or spray and a movie playing in the room, or standard of care plus the virtual reality game when undergoing routine blood draw.
Looking at pre-procedural and post-procedural standardised measures of pain, anxiety and satisfaction, researchers found that VR is feasible, tolerated, and well- liked by patients, their parents and the 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,” said Gold. Given the significant concerns about problematic opioid use, evidence-based support for non-pharmaceutical inventions may lead to use of VR for pain management during certain medical procedures and a decreased need for narcotics.