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Video Games Provide Pain And Stress Relief For Patients Undergoing Tedious Treatments

David Eichel plays games on an iPad while he receives monthly treatment for chronic asthma at Unity Health System.
Sasha-Ann Simons
David Eichel plays games on an iPad while he receives monthly treatment for chronic asthma at Unity Health System.

Video games are often accused of contributing to inactivity, and sometimes for having a violent influence. Studies have shown, however, that gaming can actually provide therapeutic value.

Research has also shown that when playing 3-D games, the brain busies itself using other senses, like vision and touch, and releases endorphins, chemicals that generally make us feel good. At the same time, the virtual experience helps produce a numbing response in brain regions associated with pain.

“If you go into an infusion room, you’ll quite often find that most of the patients have got some sort of device that they’re playing with,” says Betsy Twohig-Barrett, president of Cancer Wellness Connections. Her organization brings in various wellness-based, diversionary activities to hospitals in Rochester, NY. That includes lending iPads to patients undergoing treatment so they can play games.

“If you’re sitting in a chair, strapped into a chair for four or five hours, to find yourself transported to a different realm for those five hours can be greatly beneficial,” she says.

The mother of three was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer last summer and finished chemotherapy in the winter. She had been involved with Cancer Wellness Connections for four years because she had a passion to help the cause. Little did she know she, too, could soon benefit from the services provided by her own program. Twohig-Barrett says she isn’t surprised gaming in chemotherapy has caught on so quickly.

“Who is playing games is not what we traditionally think of. It’s not just teenage boys.”

Chronic asthma has profoundly affected the life of 55-year-old patient David Eichel, who returns to the hospital every four weeks for two to three injections that help to reduce the number of asthma attacks he suffers.

The former computer programmer hasn’t been able to maintain a full-time job in his field for nearly two decades due to an assortment of illnesses.

“I have GERD. I have birth defects of my feet and ankles, high blood pressure, diabetes, glaucoma, cataracts. I literally take over 30 medications every day,” says Eichel.

But when he’s feeling down, Eichel picks himself up with a good book every night, followed by his all-time favorite video game.

“I’ve just restarted and finished playing Serious Sam, which is a hard core ‘shoot ‘em up.’ But I just have fun wandering around these 3-D environments of ancient Egypt. That’s one of the things I find fascinating,” says Eichel.

Twohig-Barrett says her genuine hope is that video games can alleviate the anxiety of approaching pain as well as the pain experience itself.

“If you can take away the fear of going in for an infusion, not that the infusion is going to be hurtful – it’s the whole process that you may not feel well afterwards, anything you can do is helpful.”