Virtual Reality is Making Medical Care for Kids Less Scary and Painful
A blood draw is not normally a fun experience, but these days, virtual reality technology is changing that.
Instead of watching a needle go into his arm, a child wearing a VR headset at Children's Hospital Los Angeles can play a game throwing balls at cartoon bears. In Seattle, at the University of Washington, a burn patient can immerse herself in a soothing snow scene. And at the University of Miami Hospital, a five-minute skin biopsy can become an exciting ride at an amusement park.
VR is transforming once-frightening medical encounters for kids, from blood draws to biopsies to pre-surgical prep, into tolerable ones.
It's literally a game changer, says pediatric neurosurgeon Kurtis Auguste, who uses the tool to help explain pending operations to his young patients and their families. The virtual reality 3-D portrait of their brain is recreated from an MRI, originally to help plan the surgery. The image of normally bland tissue is painted with false colors to better see the boundaries and anomalies of each component. It can be rotated, viewed from every possible angle, zoomed in and out; incisions can be made and likely results anticipated. Auguste has extended its use to patients and families.
"The moment you put these headsets on the kids, we immediately have a link, because honestly, this is how they communicate with each other," says Auguste. "We're all sitting around the table playing games. It's really bridged the distance between me, the pediatric specialist, and my patients" at the Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland, now affiliated with the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.
The VR experience engages people where they are, immersing them in the environment rather than lecturing them. And it seems to work in all environments, across age and cultural differences, leading to a better grasp of what will be undertaken. That understanding is crucial to meaningful informed consent for surgery. It is particularly relevant for safety-net hospitals, which includes most children's hospitals, because often members of the families were born elsewhere and may have limited understanding of English, not to mention advanced medicine.
"We're trying to target ways that we can decrease pain, anxiety, fear – what people usually experience as a function of a needle," says Jeffrey Gold, a pioneer in adapting VR at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. He ran the pain clinic there and in 2004 initially focused on phlebotomy, simple blood draws. Many of their kids require frequent blood draws to monitor serious chronic conditions such as diabetes, HIV infection, sickle cell disease, and other conditions that affect the heart, liver, kidneys and other organs.
The scientific explanation of how VR works for pain relief draws upon two basic principles of brain function. The first is "top down inhibition," Gold explains. "We all have the inherent capacity to turn down signals once we determine that signal is no longer harmful, dangerous, hurtful, etc. That's how our brain operates on purpose. It's not just a distraction, it's actually your brain stopping the pain signal at the spinal cord before it can fire all the way up to the frontal lobe."
Second is the analgesic effect from endorphins. "If you're in a gaming environment, and you're having fun and you're laughing and giggling, you are actually releasing endorphins...a neurochemical reaction at the synaptic level of the brain," he says.
Part of what makes VR effective is "what's called a cognitive load, where you have to actually learn something and do something," says Gold. He has worked with developers on a game call Bear Blast, which has proven to be effective in a clinical trial for mitigating pain. But he emphasizes, it is not a one-size-fits all; the programs and patients need to be evaluated to understand what works best for each case.
Gold was a bit surprised to find that VR "actually facilitates quicker blood draws," because the staff doesn't have to manage the kids' anxiety, so "they require fewer needle sticks." The kids, parents, and staff were all having a good time, "and that's a big win when everybody is benefiting." About two years ago the hospital made VR an option that patients can request in the phlebotomy lab, and about half of kids age 4 and older choose to do so.
The technology "gets the kids engaged and performing the activity the way we want them to" to maximize recovery.
VR reduces or eliminates the need to use sedation or anesthesia, which carries a small but real risk of an adverse reaction. And important to parents, it eliminates the recovery time from using sedation, which shortens the visit and time missed from school and work.
A more intriguing question is whether reducing fear and anxiety in early-life experiences with the healthcare system through activities like VR will have a long-term affect on kids' attitudes toward medicine as they grow older. "If you're a screaming meemie when you come get your blood draw when you're five or seven, you're still that anxious adolescent or adult who is all quivering and sweating and avoiding healthcare," Gold says. "That's a longitudinal health outcome I'd love to get my hands on in 10-15 years from now."
Dermatologist Hadar Lev-Tov read about the use of VR to treat pain and decided to try it in his practice at the University of Miami Hospital. He thought, "OK, this is low risk, it's easy to do. So we got some equipment and got it done." It was so affordable he paid for it out of his own pocket, rather than wait to go through administrative channels. The results were so interesting that he decided to publish it as a series of case studies with a wide variety of patients and types of procedures.
Some of them, such as freezing off warts, are not particularly painful. "But there can be a lot of anxiety, especially for kids, which can be worse than pain and can disrupt the procedure." It can trigger a non-rational, primal fight or flight response in the limbic region of the brain.
Adults understand the need for a biopsy of a skin growth and tolerate what might be a momentary flick of pain. "But for a kid you think twice about a biopsy, both because it's a hassle and because it could be a traumatic event for a child," says Lev-Tov. VR has helped to allay such fears and improve medical care.
Integrating VR into practice has been relatively easy, primarily focusing on simple training for staff and ensuring that standard infection control practices are used in handling equipment that is used by different patients. More mundane issues are ensuring that the play back and wi-fi equipment are functioning properly. He has had a few complaints from kids when the procedure is competed and the VR is turned off prematurely, which is why he favors programs like a roller coaster ride that lasts about five minutes, ample time to take a biopsy or two.
The future is today
The pediatric neurosurgeon Auguste is collaborating with colleagues at Oakland Children's to expand use of VR into different areas of care. Cancer specialists often use a port, a bubble installed under the skin in the chest of the child, to administer chemotherapy. But the young patient's curiosity often draws their attention downward to the port and their chin can potentially contaminate or obstruct it, interfering with the procedure. So the team developed a VR game involving birds that requires players to move their heads upward, away from the port, improving administration of the drugs and reducing the risk of infection.
Innovative use of VR just may be one tool that actually makes kids eager to visit the doctor.
Other games are being developed for rehabilitation that require the use of specific nerve and muscle combinations. The technology "gets the kids engaged and performing the activity the way we want them to" to maximize recovery, Auguste explains. "We can monitor their progress by the score on the game, and if it plateaus, maybe switch to another game."
Another project is trying to ease the anxiety and confusion of the patient and family experience within the hospital itself. Hospital staff are creating a personalized VR introductory walking tour that leads from the parking garage through the maze of structures and corridors in the hospital complex to Dr. Auguste's office, phlebotomy, the MRI site, and other locations they might visit. The goal is to make them familiar with key landmarks before they even set foot in the facility. "So when they come the day of the visit they have already taken that exact same path, hopefully more than once."
"They don't miss their MRI appointment and therefore they don't miss their clinical appointment with me," says Auguste. It reduces patient anxiety about the encounter and from the hospital's perspective, it will reduce costs of missed and rescheduled visits simply because patients did not go to the right place at the right time.
The VR visit will be emailed to patients ahead of time and they can watch it on a smartphone installed in a disposable cardboard viewer. Oakland Children's hopes to have the system in place by early next year. Auguste says their goal in using VR, like other health care providers across the country, is "to streamline the entire patient experience."
Innovative use of VR just may be one tool that actually makes kids eager to visit the doctor. That would be a boon to kids, parents, and the health of America.
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”