In her book, SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gracefully, author Jane McGonigal writes about the positive impacts that technological distractions can have on painful or negative experiences. She writes that even though the human brain has a limited ability to focus, that trait can sometimes be used to our advantage.
Several studies exist to support McGonigal’s claims, too. One of the most revealing was a study performed in 2006 by Dr. Anuradha Patel and a team of researchers at the New Jersey Medical School, UMDNJ. This study honed in on pre-surgical anxiety in children. Anxiety disorders typically develop in children around the age of six, but anxiety levels before a surgical procedure can shoot so high that even recovery time is affected.
In the study, one group of children was given anti-anxiety medication before surgery. Another group played handheld video games before their procedures, and a third group did not receive a pre-operation treatment. Researchers discovered that the children in the video game group were the only ones who displayed decreased anxiety before their procedures.
But the real results came after the surgery.
Not only did the children who played video games need less anesthesia before their surgeries, they suffered fewer medication side effects after their procedures when compared to the other two groups.
Researchers believe that the video games were effective because of their ability to distract children from other things. By nature, video games need to be engaging to keep players interested. That engaging property allowed children to direct all of their attention away from the anxiety of surgery and toward the challenges the video game presented.
And this isn’t the only study out there that proves technology is a welcome and useful distraction when it comes to pain. Of course, not every doctor’s office has access to a video game console, but smartphone apps can put games in the palm of your hand. While the world’s first mobile phone weighed 2.5 pounds, and the first approved for sale cost $4,000, this mobile technology has now become ubiquitous. That means it could be implemented in hospitals around the world relatively simply.
Another study performed at the University of Washington Seattle provided even more evidence that technology can help distract patients from pain. This study involved burn victims, who are usually given high doses of medication in order to manage burn cleaning pain. In the study researchers discovered that patients who played a virtual reality game designed by scientists at the university felt almost 50% less pain during burn wound cleanings.
Even more surprising: playing the virtual reality game was more effective than medication in helping patients manage their pain. The more immersive and engaging the game, the less attention a patient paid to their pain.
As devices like the ever-present fidget spinners and cubes get more popular, McGonigal and others like her encourage people to look past the superficial and often negative images assigned to them. Studies like the ones described above are forcing the health care industry to consider the power of distraction and technology in a whole new light.