New VR Therapy Helps Kids in the Hospital Cope With Stress and Pain

Physicians at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, Stanford, USA are addressing the challenge of pain and anxiety management in the most innovative of ways— distraction-based virtual reality (VR) therapy.

Pediatric anesthesiologists Sam Rodriguez and Thomas Caruso have been pioneering distraction-based patient care since they founded Packard Children’s Childhood Anxiety Reduction through Innovation and Technology, or CHARIOT, in 2015. From movies and music videos, to games and interactive VR, distraction-based therapy takes many forms and is having widespread success.

For example, ‘Save the Devo’ is an interactive activity that takes the stress out of surgery and anesthesia for young patients, by transforming the daunting experience of breathing anesthetic through a mask into an enchanting game. In the game, after first choosing their preferred dragon avatar, patients interactively ‘cook’ their favorite foodstuffs. With every exhalation into the mask, the onscreen dragon breathes virtual fire onto the virtual food until, of course, the patient is out like a light. The game has been remarkably successful in reducing pre-operative stress and anxiety.

The most recent breakthrough involves the use of distraction-based VR therapy for pain reduction.

According to the Stanford Medicine News Center, as patients undergo routine medical procedures, they are able to play interactive games and do activities by way of a set of VR goggles. The shift in concentration helps to somewhat alleviate pain.

Indeed, there is no doubting the power of distraction when it comes to pain relief. Rodriguez relates, “We are finding that the ability to distract these patients with fully immersive, fun and relaxing sensory environments can have a significant impact on the anxiety and pain that they experience during minor procedures, dressing changes and other medical treatments.”

By way of example, consider the experience of Blaine Baxter. Blaine suffered a terrible injury to his arm in an unfortunate go-karting incident. As part of his treatment, he had to endure painful dressing changes on a daily basis. As Blaine anticipated his dressing change, the impending pain and discomfort suffused him with fear; so much so, that he would have to be sedated before doctors could treat him.

However, the distraction-based VR therapy was an absolute game changer. Blaine’s mother, Tamara Baxter, explains, “As soon as he put the goggles on, sedation was no longer needed, and during his dressing changes we went from hearing pain-stricken screams to ‘Wow, I’m under the sea looking at sea snakes. This is so cool. You have to see this!’”

With such success, the future of distraction-based VR therapy is bright. The technology is being rolled out in many of the hospital’s other units and facilities. Furthermore, pediatricians at the Stanford Children’s Health Bayside Medical Group-Berkeley will be implementing distraction-based VR technology during immunization sessions to help curb every child’s greatest fear— the fear of needles.

Studies are also underway to investigate the benefits of distraction-based VR therapy during vascular access procedures, including blood draws and port access.

As Rodriguez and Caruso look to enhance the scope of distraction-based technology, improve design and work towards greater accessibility in the wider community, their mission is clear and simple; “to take a personalized approach to care by adapting and developing technological interventions for each child’s needs,” Rodriguez said.

VR is undoubtedly changing the direction of patient care. From therapy to training, it is providing novel solutions to many of the challenges in medical practice. As it continues to do so, we keenly await the latest developments.

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