Virtual Reality Games Used to Distract Young Burn Victims from Pain and Anxiety

September 28, 2007

Nurses and physicians at Nationwide Childrens Hospital are using the latest technology to help young burn victims endure the extreme pain of dressing changes and wound care.  Instead of traditional distraction devices, such as books and music, Nationwide Childrens Hospital Burn Center is now using virtual reality games to distract patients while nurses attend to the patients burn wounds.

Its long been known that the actual treatment for a burn is far worse than the actual injury.  Initially, the wound has to be cleaned and the dressing applied, and that can be a very painful and lengthy procedure, said Catherine Butz, PhD, a psychologist at Nationwide Childrens Hospital and an Assistant Professor at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

Following this initial treatment, patients must endure subsequent wound care procedures, some of which can be both extensive and painful, depending on the extent of the burn.  During these procedures, anxiety often plays a major role in the patients pain level.

Research shows a very strong connection between anxiety and pain, said Dr. Butz.  Distraction does a great job in decreasing any kind of anxiety that might be associated with the anticipated procedures, so by distracting patients and keeping anxiety at a minimum, procedures tend to go much more smoothly and be much less painful for the child.

The device, made possible by a donation from the Aladdin Shriners Hospital Association for Children, allows patients to escape into a computer-generated world complete with its own environment, creatures and sounds.  Patients wear a virtual reality helmet, and once in this new world, they interact in the virtual environment with the help of child life specialists, trained to assist kids through stressful medical treatments. 

Since Nationwide Childrens Hospital began using the device in May 2007, it has already resulted in positive feedback from burn patients.  Burn nurses report several patients have noticeably improved in terms of their ability to tolerate dressing changes.

In order to better understand the effect on pain, doctors at Nationwide Childrens have launched a study to compare the results of virtual reality pain distraction with traditional distraction techniques, such as watching television, listening to music, counting and deep breathing.  Patients will be randomly assigned to receive virtual reality or another pain distraction technique.  Following the procedure, they will be asked to gauge their level of pain on a scale of zero to 10.  The study will also assess the perspectives of parents and nurses in terms of the childs pain and level of distress.

The burn programs goal is to be able to better engage the child in a distraction activity which will hopefully have a beneficial affect on the procedure.  An added benefit for patients may be a decrease in the amount of pain and anxiety medications needed.  However doctors point out that pain is a very individual experience, and the benefits of virtual reality distraction as well as the level of medication must be determined on a case by case basis. 


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About Nationwide Children's Hospital

Named to the Top 10 Honor Roll on U.S. News & World Report ‘s 2018-19 list of “Best Children’s Hospitals,” Nationwide Children’s Hospital is one of America’s largest not-for-profit freestanding pediatric health care systems providing wellness, preventive, diagnostic, treatment and rehabilitative care for infants, children and adolescents, as well as adult patients with congenital disease. Nationwide Children’s has a staff of more than 13,000 providing state-of-the-art pediatric care during more than 1.4 million patient visits annually. As home to the Department of Pediatrics of The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Nationwide Children’s physicians train the next generation of pediatricians and pediatric specialists. The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital is one of the Top 10 National Institutes of Health-funded freestanding pediatric research facilities. More information is available at NationwideChildrens.org.