The Healing Power of Video Games

video game pain rehabIf you didn’t notice, my most recent post was my first in two months. Well, that’s because I spent a majority of that time lying in bed, desperately trying to alleviate the excruciating pain caused by three nasty discs in my back. Yes, due to poor lifting form and a large ego, I managed to herniate my L3-4 and L5-S1 discs, and cause my L4-5 disc to bulge.

Before this horrible, dreadful, and downright ugly experience, the worst injury I’d ever had was a high ankle sprain I received when coming down on someone’s foot during a basketball game. Take that pain, multiply it by 100, and throw in a dash terror from thinking I would need back surgery to be fully health again, and you’ll have a good idea of the state I was in. When you’re only 26 years old, that’s a pretty scary thought.

I couldn’t stand, walk, or sit for more than 30 seconds without feeling crippling pain. Parts of my foot were numb and I would often feel a powerful tingling sensation radiate from my calf down to my toes. When I looked in the mirror every morning, I saw a crooked, hunched over man that was wasting away from inactivity. In short, I was more fucked up than I had ever been in my life, and the worst part was, I did it to myself.

Because I couldn’t do anything else, I spent a majority of those two months doing what love most: Gaming. Sure, I made a conscious effort to be more productive with my extra time, but it was fruitless. I tried writing, but the pain was so overwhelming that I found it difficult the concentrate. Focusing on writing in bed was never my forte, and constantly shuffling around to find a pain-free position didn’t help. Reading was also out of the question because the combination of pain medicine and my comfortable bed would put me to sleep before I could make it through a chapter.

battlefield one
Battlefield 1 helped me get through a very tough time.

Video games were the only thing that could keep my attention, and strangely enough, playing them seemed to ease my pain. Whether I was bolting through blackened, blown up brick buildings in Battlefield 1 or bringing the baddies of Gotham to justice in Batman: Arkham Knight, I was so immersed that my searing pain faded into a tolerable ache. It was my most effective form of medication, nullifying my pain and keeping me entertained while I lied in bed and waited for my discs to heal.

Interesting, isn’t it? Out of all the drugs, stretching, and physical therapy I was instructed to do by my doctors, none helped as much as getting lost in a good game for a few hours. Eventually, my amazing girlfriend (who was by myside every day and I’m super grateful for) forced me to schedule an appointment with an incredible chiropractor that was remarkably able to cure me. Seriously, if you live in the Chicagoland area and have back pain, Guy Garzzo is miracle worker. But before then, gaming was all I could rely on to ease my pain, and it had me wondering why.

Well, apparently video games are scientifically proven to provide children and adults relief from acute and chronic pain. Amazing, right? I would have never known if I hadn’t gone through this experience. Evidently, because gaming immerses you and distracts you from the real world, it is effective in helping you cope with real ailments. According to Sarah Rebstock, MD, PhD, a pediatric anesthesiologist at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. motion control and VR gaming are even more so effective because they give people with injuries the opportunity to move their bodies in new ways.

shadow of mordor
Being injured allowed me time to play cool games like Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.

“[Video games] get you to do things that are painful, that you wouldn’t normally do,” Rebstock said in a 2013 interview with Everyday Health. “You’re distracted. “You’re increasing range of motion, increasing blood flow, and retraining your body to decrease the pain so it’s not as intense. We’re trying to [change] how the central nervous system receives information.”

Upon further research, I found a 2011 medical study by Eleanor Jameson, MHSc, Judy Trevena, PhD, and Nic Swain, PhD. Titled Electronic Gaming as a Pain Distraction, it’s split into two experiments. The first examined 60 participants whom were asked to submerge one hand in freezing cold water for as long as they could tolerate; once without a distraction, and once with a gaming system. The second examined 40 participants whom were given the same experimental procedure, but were given verbal suggestions about the effects of the distraction beforehand.

In both experiments, participants reported feeling less pain while distracted by gaming, and even less anxiety. A similar study published by Royal Society Science in 2016 followed a similar methodology, but used a VR headset and noise-cancelling headphones as the distraction. Unsurprisingly, the results showed that patients experienced the highest level of pain tolerance when both visual and auditory stimuli were presented simultaneously.

video game physical therapy
U.S. Navy using the Wii balance board in pain rehabilitation.

Likewise, a more recent study by Firsthand Technology and a Tennessee-based pain management clinic has found VR therapy to be incredibly effective for pain relief. In fact, out of the 40 people who participated in the trial, all but one reported less pain. To be specific, participants reported 60-75 percent less pain than before their VR session. That’s pretty impressive considering morphine averages about 30 percent pain reduction in patients.

As time goes on, it’ll be interesting to see what further research connecting video game playing and pain relief uncover. Perhaps one day we will see more clinical use of gaming in therapy and treatment plans. Maybe doctors will suggest patients play a couple hours of game instead of prescribing them with addicting opiates. Seems unlikely considering how much of a money making machine big pharma is. One thing is for sure, next time I badly injure myself, I’m going to make sure I have a strong lineup of games to play until I recover.

Do you have an example of when video games got you through a tough time? Share your story in the comment section below!

3 thoughts on “The Healing Power of Video Games

  1. I’m so good to see more empirical evidence being garnered for this. It makes sense since games are so immersive. While I have gotten lost in many a book, they have to be well written enough to engage me fully whereas a mediocre or even poor game will hold my attention completely. In fact I’ll often play a puzzle game like Adventures of Lolo or The Imbossible Game before I delve into writing in order to warm up my concentration circuits lol. Since I have some concentration issues, every little bit helps! I’m glad you found some relief in them. That sounds excruciating 😥

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s interesting haha. I have some focus issues as well. I think I will try to start playing puzzle games in the morning before work to see if it helps me, too.

      It was excruciating, but good games and the right specialist helped me get through it. Almost fully recovered now! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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