How gaming can act as a painkiller

Written by Dr. Andrew Doan & Brooke Strickland on .

If you think that video games can’t provoke real, physiological responses, think again. A research article covered by NPR talks about Sam Brown, an Afghanistan veteran that was severely burned in 2008 during his time of service. His body was horribly burned and his life is not the same as it used to be before that day. After several treatments, burn grafts, and other painkillers that simply can’t manage the level of pain he experiences at times, Brown talks about a game called SnowWorld, a virtual game that was created by researchers David Patterson and Hunter Hoffman.

These two researchers had been looking closely at patients who had not responded to traditional pain medicines and how experimenting with virtual reality can help provide a distraction that could serve as a different kind of painkiller. They came up with a new virtual environment called Spider World, which allows patients to put on goggles and be immersed in a world of friendly spiders. This allows people to eventually help lose their fear of spiders.  

Researchers thought the same sort of virtual world could help with pain patients, so they created a world that was the complete opposite of fire – an icy world full of snow, pleasant images, penguins, and snowmen:
SnowWorld was born.

This virtual reality has been used on a variety of soldiers in the army that have experienced burns. The game, which is the complete antithesis of fire, provokes a response in the brain that allows the patient to forget about the pain by floating along icy canyons or throwing snowballs. It has dramatically changed the way some soldiers process pain, reducing it significantly or altering the physical therapy procedures that are needed. (1)

A recent study published through The Society of Behavioral Medicine also establishes credibility when using virtual reality gaming to treat real life pain in patients, whether it’s burning, or other medical procedure pain. In fact, the study reports 35-50% reduction in procedural pain while in a distracting immersive virtual reality and fMRI brain scans also show associated reductions in pain-related brain activity while in this virtual reality, mainly in those who are experiencing the highest level of pain. Virtual reality gaming is thought to reduce pain by directing patients’ attention into the virtual world, leaving less attention available to process incoming neural signals from pain receptors. (2)

Video games are a form of “digital drug”. Video games are beneficial with moderate and age-appropriate use but will cause severe harm when used in excess. Video games are used as anti-depressants, to increase hand-eye coordination, and even as a painkiller. Unfortunately, the average child now uses over 7 hours daily of digital entertainment, which is three times the daily exposure recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Similar to pharmaceutical painkillers, overdose of this “digital drug” has severe consequences on the physical, mental, and emotional development in children and adults.

Have you experienced anything similar to this while playing games that transport you into a different reality? Are your children completely distracted while playing video games, like their brains are numbed or sedated? Are we pacifying our children with a potent “digital painkiller”? The brain is truly being affected by video games so understanding the effects is important, especially if your family experiences negative consequences from too much gaming. Video game and technology addiction is very real and causes your body to react in real life.

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  1. 1. “Virtual Penguins: A Prescription for Pain?” NPR. February 12, 1012. Accessed online December 11, 2013.
  2. 2. Hoffman, Hunter, G., PhD, Chambers, Gloria, T., RN, III Meyer, Walter, J., MD, PhD, Arceneaux, Lisa, L., PhD, Russell, William, J., MS, Seibel, Eric, J., PhD, Richards, Todd, L., PhD, Sharar, Sam, R., MD, Patterson, David, PhD.  “Virtual Reality as an Adjunctive Non-pharmacologic Analgesic for Acute Burn Pain During Medical Procedures.” Society of Behavioral Medicine 2011. Accessed online December 11, 2013.

By Brooke Strickland