Virtual Reality Helps Kids Cope with Pain and Anxiety

Patient Amaya with nursing researcher Sofia experiencing VR before surgery

Virtual reality (VR) is an immersive technology that brings children into a 3D imaginary world that looks and feels real. Children put on a VR headset, known as a head-mounted display, and use controllers to interact with the imaginary world. This technology has been used as a distraction tool to help children cope with pain and anxiety during medical procedures. Two Shriners Children’s hospitals have taken the initiative to use VR to improve the hospital experience of their patients.

Reggie Hamdy, M.D., and Argerie Tsimicalis, RN, Ph.D., at Shriners Children’s Canada, have conducted studies on the use of VR with patients since 2019. The main goal was to gather evidence on whether VR could be seamlessly introduced into clinical practice to help children manage procedural pain and anxiety.

At Shriners Children’s Spokane, clinical staff and recreational therapy staff have been using VR technology since 2019 as well. Patients utilize specialty VR goggles during their appointments and can select from a number for VR experiences like navigating an underwater adventure or taking part of a thrilling safari.

“We’ve had so many successes. When a child’s attention is redirected to an attractive element, the perception of pain is hindered,” said Shriners Children’s Spokane recreational therapist Larissa Sims. “A lot of the time the reaction from the patient is ‘Ow that hurts. Then, look! There’s a whale.’”

With patients at Shriners Hospitals for Children Canada in Montreal, children play an interactive and immersive game, DREAM, during a medical procedure where they need to catch the balloons and diamonds stolen by purple trolls.This form of distraction is used for example, during the removal of orthopedic pins in the cast room or IVs in the treatment room.

“Having surgery, resetting a broken bone or starting an IV can be scary and painful for children. Virtual reality has been found to help children in these situations, using distraction to reduce pain and alleviate their fears. During these stressful situations, the patients, through the use of VR, enter a calm, imaginary world,” said Bryan Tompkins, M.D., one of the pediatric orthopedic surgeons at Shriners Children’s Spokane. 

Virtual Reality for kids!

Thanks to the generosity of Spirit Halloween, Shriners Children’s Spokane utilizes specialty VR goggles during appointments to improve the hospital experience of their patients.

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Shriners Hospitals for Children Canada is currently training healthcare professionals as VR Champions, so they may have their own VR headset and use it with their patients. Our first VR Champion is Angie Gugliotti, child life specialist who already helps children cope with pain and anxiety using various non-pharmacological tools and now can offer VR distraction to patients. “Since virtual reality is an electronic game it also appeals to today’s generation of children and teenagers as they spend much time immersed in the digital world. Virtual reality is an additional tool in our toolbox.” says Angie.  

Improving our young patients’ experiences through therapeutic intervention and new technology such as virtual reality can help to change the perception of a hospital and the anxiety-provoking experiences. VR therapy has the potential to revolutionize the standard of care, as ultimately the hope is that non-pharmaceutical pain management alternatives will reduce reliance on painkillers.

From Shriners Hospital Canada: