Virtual reality (VR) pain management apps and other technologies have been developing for over a decade to help children struggling with chronic pain conditions and rehabilitation. The current article will summarize a 2021 publication by Logan and colleagues, who reviewed the current state of virtual reality pain management for chronic pediatric pain. They sought to translate beneficial discoveries to date and clarify directions for future research to improve the quality of life of children needing pain management.
The authors found that VR pain management is an up-and-coming health technology tool for pediatric chronic pain, and research is emerging on its efficacy and suggestions for best practices. They reviewed and summarized various programs developed and utilized VR pain management with children. These programs include:
- The Stanford CHARIOT Program
- Stanford Pediatric Pain Rehabilitation
- Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center
- The Hospital for Sick Children
- Boston Children’s Hospital
- Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles
How Virtual Reality & Pain Management Work Together
In their review of the literature, the researchers also discussed how VR pain management can potentially increase the patient’s involvement, give them tools to improve their access to different treatment modalities, and increase patient-centered healthcare by tailoring the treatment to their needs and preferences. Previous research has found that virtual reality pain management is effective in decreasing acute pain after medical procedures related to transient pain, such as distraction strategies among both adults (Kenney & Milling, 2016; Mallari et al., 2019; Malloy & Milling, 2010) and children (Kenney & Milling, 2016; Gates et al., 2020; Won et al., 2017; Lambert et al., 2020).
According to the authors, virtual reality pain management apps allow the patient to engage completely in various interventions for pain management. It works due to the patient’s multisensory experience, reducing pain signals while allowing the patient to enjoy the process. Other beneficial effects can include reducing anxiety and mood (Colloca et al., 2010). In particular, children can benefit from virtual reality pain management because they are often comfortable and excited about using technology to participate in experiences that involve using their imaginations (Gold & Mahrer, 2018). The success of VR pain management lies in the virtual reality pain management apps’ ability to provide an immersive experience that distracts from the discomfort of pain.
Factors Contributing to Success in Virtual Reality Pain Management
The researchers identified these three primary factors for success in accelerating the use of virtual reality pain management apps:
- Effective partnerships with stakeholders in the industry, academia, and in clinical practice
- An organized series of outcome domains and methods of assessing and measuring the technologies
- Easy access to the latest virtual reality pain management technology that is accessible to many populations.
Safety Issues as Barriers
Many of the barriers to using VR pain management with children involve safety. For example, some concerns involve the adequacy of modifications to headsets for small children due to the smaller size of their heads. There also can be the need for standardized infection control practices in shared equipment since some virtual reality pain management apps require equipment that may come in contact with the child’s nose and mouth. Some technology manufacturers do not recommend VR experiences for children younger than twelve. Additional safety-related research would be beneficial to make virtual reality pain management accessible to children of all ages.
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