Is Your Child in Pain? Let Them Play Video Games!
Video games could help treat chronic pain by distracting and then rehabilitating kids in a fun and engaging way, studies suggest.
By Dennis Thompson Jr.
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Omari Gray, 10, suffers from debilitating headaches, and nothing helps his chronic pain – nothing, that is, except video games.
Omari has hydrocephalus, which is a swelling of the head caused by excess cerebral spinal fluid, and it can cause chronic pain. He plays motion-sensing games on an Xbox 360 and says that they help his chronic pain.
"I feel good when I'm done playing," Omari of Hyattsville, Md., said. "My headache feels a lot better when I'm playing."
Can Video Games Reduce Pain?
Researchers have been investigating the usefulness of video games in chronic pain treatment for more than a decade, said Sarah Rebstock, MD, PhD, a pediatric anesthesiologist at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
The advent of motion-sensing game systems like the Playstation 3 EyeToy, the Nintendo Wii, and the Xbox 360 Kinect has extended this research. Before, video games were considered a way to distract from chronic pain, but now they're considered an actual chronic pain treatment.
It's all due to the concept of neuroplasticity, Dr. Rebstock said – the notion that experience causes the brain to wire itself in certain ways, and that rehabilitative therapy can essentially rewire the brain.
For instance, playing a video game may give people with shoulder injuries the opportunity to move their bodies in new ways. The game distracts them from, the pain and, though repetition, their brain eventually conforms itself to the notion that the arm can move that way with less pain or even no pain.
"[Video games] get you to do things that are painful, that you wouldn't normally do," Rebstock said. "You’re distracted.”
“You're increasing range of motion, increasing blood flow, and retraining your body to decrease the pain so it's not as intense,” she added. “We're trying to [change] how the central nervous system receives information."
Video Games Aid Rehabilitation
Child burn victims experienced a significant increase in their range of motion after playing Nintendo Wii or Playstation EyeToy games, according to a 2012 study published in the journal Burns.
Rebstock is trying to adapt the Xbox Kinect so that the games played will focus on specific body parts that require rehabilitation. She also wants to use the Kinect technology, which uses a camera to track player's movements, as a way to capture each person's range of motion so doctors can review the video and design individualized treatments.
"We are using video game technology for both diagnostic and therapeutic purposes, which is the novelty," she said. "The goal would be that eventually people could get this just like you'd buy durable medical equipment on a doctor's prescription."
Ideally, a patient could play at home, with their play monitored remotely by a doctor or a physical therapist who could suggest different games or types of play, Rebstock said.
Video Games, Home Therapy
In the meantime, people could pick up a Kinect or Wii and try this at home, but Rebstock recommended they do so under a doctor's guidance.
"Some people will overdo it, kids especially," she said. "They figure if a little is good, then more is better, and that's not always the case."
LaRonda Gray, Omari's mother, said that video games seem to be benefitting her son.
"Instead of sitting there wallowing in the pain, [the games] help direct his thought process,” she said.
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