Study shows VR could help children manage pain, anxiety at the doctor's office

By Laura Lovett
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Virtual reality can help children to manage pain without the use of drugs, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology in October. The study, which used VR during blood drawing at the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital, found that using VR significantly reduced acute procedural pain and anxiety in patients compared to using the standard of care.

The study also reported that patients who reported being more fearful of physiological sensations related to anxiety benefited more from the VR treatment. 

“The integration of technology, specifically virtual reality, in the context of health care, has far-reaching implications for acute and chronic disease in children and adults,” author of the study Jeffrey Gold said in an email MobiHealthNews. “In particular, the current findings reflect the capacity of VR to minimize pain and anxiety in children undergoing blood draw. Generations of patients have needle fear and VR may have the capacity to reduce that phobia. Additionally, reduced needle phobia may lead to greater medical adherence and improved patient satisfaction with their overall medical treatment experience.”

The study was comprised of 143 pediatric patients, plus their caregivers and their phlebotomists. In the study, patients between the ages of 10 and 21 were put into two groups: one group used VR when having blood drawn in an outpatient setting and the other used the standard of care. During each treatment patients and caregivers were given a preprocedural and postprocedural standardized measure of pain, anxiety and satisfaction. Phelbotomists who participated gave reports on the patients' experience during the treatment, according to the study. 

The study noted that in the past, the use of VR was cost prohibitive for research trials and interventions, as well as having impractical software limitations. However, with the new VR head-mounted displays becoming more readily available and reasonably priced, the demographic for VR has shifted to a broader user base.

The study concluded that VR is feasible, tolerable and well-liked by patients, caregivers and the phlebotomists for routine blood drawing. It also noted that VR has the capacity to act as a preventative intervention in blood drawing, especially for patients with anxiety sensitivity, that is less distressing than a traditional blood draw and potentially pain-free.

VR’s role in pain management has recently been a topic of interest in the healthcare community. Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, has a VR program that has been working with virtual reality to help alleviate patients’ pain. In February the hospital reported that in a small controlled study, VR was able to drop patient’s average self-reported pain score from 5.4 to 4.1, whereas, the 2D experience only dropped the score to 4.8. 

The Cedars-Sinai program has found that not all patients are good candidates for VR. Patients with strokes, delirium, epilepsy, nausea and people too physically frail to wear the headset were not ideal candidates. Researchers at Cedars-Sinai also found it was important to be careful with patients with PTSD because such an immersive visual experience could trigger traumatic memories.