The Great Escape: From physical pain

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[For one of her Monthly Musings, Elsa shares how gaming helped her get through some difficult surgeries, and how recent research is showing that gaming may actually be a valid medical treatment. Want to post your own article on this month’s topic? Publish it now on our community blogs. – JRo]

I was a first year University student when they first found the cancer. An operation removed the tumor but I was informed that it would likely recur and that my chances for having children diminished each year. At that time in life I wasn’t prepared to be a single mother with no husband, in school, starting a career… so having a baby had to wait. Further minor surgeries followed and the waiting went on. Unfortunately, by the time I finally found the right guy that I wanted to have babies with, it was no longer a physical possibility and that final surgery was then done to remove the cancer and all hopes of ever bearing children. Also unfortunately, the cancer had spread to another part of my body and thus began the routine of surgeries every 2 to 5 years to keep it in check and even possibly, to not have it recur.

I won’t go into details except to say that I’m very, very lucky. The form of cancer I have is slow growing, has little to no impact on my daily life, and is controllable via surgical removal of pre-cancerous tissue. The other minor detail is that while the surgery itself is painless (hell, I’m unconscious), the surgical recovery is a nightmare of pain. The typical recovery time is 4 to 8 weeks and for most of that time I am confined to my bed in varying levels of pain. For the most part, drugs ensure that the pain is low grade, but it’s wearing. It’s not unlike having a bad toothache – for a month or more.

The one honest to God relief from pain I get is playing video games. I first discovered this when I had a Dreamcast and a copy of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation. It could be played while stretched out in a bed, and while under the influence of some pretty fun drugs. For some reason I remember climbing the tomb… and climbing and climbing. I’m pretty sure I took some wrong turns along the way – but the game itself was not a wrong turn. It actively engaged my mind, distracting me from my pain and even allowing me to use fewer drugs.

Apparently I’m not the only one to discover this. Increasingly science is proving that “distraction” can in fact go a long way in relieving pain. In 2006, a simple study done by students at Wheeling Jesuit University showed that video games had the potential to reduce pain. Of the genres studied, it was found that highly active games such as fighters and sports games were most effective. Nilli Lavie, a psychologist currently engaged in additional studies on this topic said “Research has shown that action-filled games take up your attention more than other games, like puzzles… they present more of an information overload by giving you a lot to process and do very quickly.”

Additional studies are still being done, including studies on virtual reality video games which may increase the immersive and distractive factors, but already hospitals are using video games to relieve pain. At the cancer clinic in Texas Children’s Hospital (a leader in exploring pain management techniques), among other strategies such as live performers, positioning for comfort, and medication, children have the benefit of hand-held video games to distract them from pain and anxiety, says child life specialist Breanna Hopkins. The clinic is in the process of installing Wii systems as well. (reference).

Games are also being specifically designed to not only provide distraction and relief from pain, but also to educate and even encourage visualization which can help further relieve pain. Snow World was a game originally designed for children recuperating from extremely painful burns and helped to provide a visually pleasing cold world to help alleviate the painfulness of changing dressings and other treatments. The game was also later used in burn wards for adult soldiers. Other games such as Re-Mission are being used to help cancer patients feel more empowered about battling their cancer through a game that educates, distracts, and may help with positive visualization in achieving remission.

Overall, video gaming is proving to be a wonderful form of “escape” from pain. More studies are being done, but patient feedback is the strongest force in proving the effects, and as pain is such a subjective thing, this may be the best we can hope for in terms of scientific proof. Video game systems are increasingly being used in hospitals, dental clinics and various other institutions. From my own experience, gaming has not only provided a wonderful distraction from the pain of recovery, but additionally it has given me a positive outlook when I know that I have to endure another surgery. That waiting time before a procedure is now filled with buying games, planning which games I”ll play… and even looking forward to having an excuse to sit and play games till all hours of the night to avoid those sleepless hours of thinking about how uncomfortable I am. The immersive distraction of video games provides a much needed escape from very real pain. For myself, gaming through pain made me much less dependent on the drugs and even brings a small measure of joy to a short lived but miserable time that I know I have to endure.

For anyone with children, why not try a video game as a distraction from an ear ache or toothache? Why not lend your gaming system to a friend recovering from surgery? Gaming is a powerful escape from pain. In a not so distant future, your Doctor may not be prescribing pills… but instead could be recommending video games!

Note: I debated on whether to write this or not as I assumed that others would also have experience with the distractive relief that video gaming can provide… but I haven’t seen any monthly musing blogs directly related to this topic as yet. I just want to emphasize that I don’t want any sympathy for my illness, many people live with conditions much worse than what I endure. I am lucky enough to have a form of cancer that is fairly easily controlled and I am also lucky enough to have a wonderfully supportive husband who looks after me when I do have to have surgeries. I just think that this is an important topic and more people should be aware of the medicinal affects of gaming – whether for themselves, a loved one or a friend.

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