For those seeking to reduce pain by refocusing their attention on a video game, it may not matter whether they have access to virtual reality (VR) technology or not. A recent study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Pain found that both VR-enhanced and traditional video game distraction effectively improved pain outcomes.
By Julia Zeroth
Each day, countless people must endure painful medical procedures. Several distraction techniques have been used successfully to manage the pain and distress people experience during these procedures. One popular distraction intervention makes use of video games and virtual reality (VR) technology by refocusing attention on the game play and thus minimizing the experience of pain. However, so far it has not been clear if VR technology, including the head mounted display helmet, is necessary in order to reduce pain as effectively and completely as possible.
Another open question has been whether environmental variables impact the effectiveness of video game distraction. The average medical setting often contains a variety of noises, from beeping machines to crying children, which may prevent patients from becoming fully immersed in video game distraction. This premise was now tested in a study that also sought to compare traditional video game distraction with VR-assisted video game distraction.
Playing Mario Kart for science
In order to simulate pain, the participants – healthy college students – engaged in the cold pressor task, which involves the immersion of one hand up to the wrist in ice-cold water. The cold water produces temporary pain of mild or moderate intensity that can be ended voluntarily at any time. The task allows for the measurement of both pain intensity (the strength of the pain) and pain tolerance (the length of time the pain can be endured). Each participant completed a baseline cold pressor test followed by two distraction trials – one with, and one without, the VR helmet. During both distraction trials, participants played a round of Mario KartTM on the Nintendo Wii. Half of the participants completed all three trials while exposed to interfering background noise, while the others completed identical study procedures in quiet conditions.
As predicted, video game distraction both with and without the VR helmet increased pain tolerance. However, the VR helmet only marginally improved pain outcomes above and beyond those benefits achieved by video game distraction without the helmet. This suggests that further research is required to establish whether and under what conditions VR technology adds to the effectiveness of video game distraction. “Though we can’t be sure VR is necessary to ensure a truly immersive distraction experience”, lead author Julia Zeroth explains, “it is a worthy avenue to pursue. There have been incredible advances in the VR technology available both in and out of medical settings. We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface in our understanding of VR’s potential to improve the lives of people who experience discomfort, trauma, or pain.”
Additionally, the noisy environment increased participants’ pain intensity ratings. The VR helmet appeared to help reduce pain intensity for a subset of men in the study who experienced the background noise, but this effect was too small to be considered statistically significant. According to the researchers from the University of Maryland, further studies are now necessary to determine whether men and women respond differently to VR video game distraction in noisy or other competing environmental conditions.
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