Using Video Games to Manage Pain

If you were to walk into our house, you'd notice it filled with fantasy art, monsters, and colorful characters. Keegan, my husband with AS, is an artist and over the years has collected and traded pieces with other artists. Much of their inspiration comes from video games. While this medium is often attributed to a common kid's activity, it's become much more for Keegan. He's noted over the years that video games help him get through tough pain days. After doing some research, it seems like studies support the notion that games help patients manage chronic pain.

Helping burn victims

Back in college when I was studying video game design, we discussed a key example of how video games can help burn victims. Burn victims feel a ton of pain when their bandages are changed. However, researchers found that when patients played a game that took place in an ice world with penguins, the patients reported feeling less pain. More and more studies have come out to show that burn victims do benefit from this active distraction from the pain. Hospitals are even using virtual reality to help burn patients.

What about chronic pain?

That left me wondering about chronic pain. Keegan's played hundreds of hours of video games. We own a PlayStation 4 and Switch and over the years have bonded over playing video games together. He even recently beat a game that took over 90 hours of gameplay. So I was curious and Googled, "video games helping chronic pain" and what I found surprised me.

Studies are showing that games help with chronic pain. This one in particular showed that video games are a distraction from pain. Our brain can only receive so many messages at once, and the study found that having an active distraction like a video game can reduce pain signals. One important takeaway was that the distraction must be an active cognitive task and not passive. An active task like a video game requires the brain to consciously problem solve, react, and complete tasks. A passive task, like watching tv, doesn't require as much brainpower.

Video games stop pain for novices and experts alike

As I looked through countless articles, including one entitled "Video Games Zap Pain," I wondered if it mattered how much chronic pain patients had experience with video games.1 As it turns out, anyone in chronic pain who can find a game they enjoy no matter how long they've been playing can reap the benefits. It can be as simple as a solitaire game on your iPhone to a complex role-playing game on the Xbox, but one thing is clear. Video games help chronic pain. They may not be the go-to solution, but in combination with doctor recommendations, seem to reduce day-to-day pain many experience.

Keegan doesn't play games all the time, but he does pick up a controller in the evenings after our daughter goes to bed. The end of the day can be particularly difficult for him, especially in these colder months. He goes to games that are more exploratory or role-playing, like Zelda, to help him ease from the chaos of the day to a peaceful night. He's noted he'd rather play a game at night than watch TV or a movie. It all makes sense now! He can get some pain relief before heading off to bed.

So the next time you're feeling achy, try picking up a game and seeing if it helps! I'd love to hear about anyone's experiences in addition to my husband's. Have video games helped you? Which ones and how?

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