Children’s Hospital L.A. uses virtual reality for pain management

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Getting blood drawn can be a harrowing experience for kids. To distract them during the procedure, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles is using virtual reality technology to better manage their perception of acute pain, anxiety and general distress.

Researchers at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles conducted a year-long randomized control trial with 143 patients ages 10 to 21 years in which they received either standard of care—which typically included a topical anesthetic cream or spray and a movie playing in the room—or standard of care plus a virtual reality game when undergoing routine blood draw.

Results of the study, published recently in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, found that the immersive virtual experience is feasible, tolerated and well-liked by patients, their parents and the phlebotomists.

The technology the hospital used was from L.A.-based appliedVR, which contends it has the first virtual reality platform designed for healthcare “to offer patients a highly enjoyable escape from scary and painful experiences.” The platform consisted of VR goggles linked to cell phones running the Bear Blast game, in which patients can throw red balls on bears in a virtual world.

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“It’s definitely multi-modal—they see the game, interact with it, and it’s responsive to their head movement,” says study co-author Nicole Mahrer, PhD, of the Department of Anesthesiology Critical Care Medicine at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “They have headphones on and can hear the music and feedback from what they are doing in the game. The volume was set to a particular level so they could both hear the game and hear the provider … so it didn’t interfere with the blood draw procedure.”

According to Mahrer, the VR technology was “equally effective” in younger kids in the study and that even older kids enjoyed the game. Having blood drawn can be a scary procedure and it can potentially be painful, she adds, but this kind of option can help prevent a lot of phobias associated with needles and traumatic experiences in hospitals.

“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 co-author Jeffrey Gold, PhD, director of the Pediatric Pain Management Clinic at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. “Ultimately, the aim of future VR investigations should be to develop flexible VR environments to target specific acute and chronic pain conditions.”

Mahrer adds that VR is currently being studied in different units of the hospital. “We’re studying whether virtual reality helps during IV placement prior to an MRI scan—that study is happening in radiology,” she notes. “We also have a study in orthopedics having to do with cast removal, which is not necessarily as painful a procedure but it can be very distressing for patients because it involves a large saw.”

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