Anyone who’s watched kids play video games knows how absorbing the games can be. Now, doctors in the U.S. are capitalizing on the power of video games to come up with a new way of treating young, chronic pain patients.

Like adults, children can develop chronic pain for a number of reasons, such as nerve damage from accidents or illnesses. Many of these kids suffer daily with severe burning pain in a joint or limb, or extreme sensitivity to touch.

The key to helping these kids is often to get them moving. But it’s sometimes not easy to convince pain patients to move an area of their body that hurts. That’s where video games come in.

Researchers at the National Children's Medical Center in Washington are discovering that by getting kids to play interactive video games in the hospital’s new Pain Medicine Care Complex, they can distract the children long enough to allow their pain specialists and therapists to assess and measure the children’s pain, while also treating it. And as a bonus, the kids can have a little fun at the same time.

“Clinicians working with patients with chronic pain know that physical therapy and rehab are one of the first treatment approaches,” NCMC psychologist Angela Fletcher told CTV’s Canada AM Wednesday from Washington.

“But that’s oftentimes difficult, to get patients to engage in therapy,” she says.

That can change when kids play active games using motion sensing input devices that track their movements and translate them into action on the screen.

The researchers are finding it doesn’t take long before the children get caught up into the game and begin moving their bodies a little further each time in order to score more points.

“When they come in, [our patients] typically cannot use the area of their body where they’re experiencing so much pain,” Fletcher explains.

“So once they are able to engage with the video game, then they can increase their range of motion, and that’s how we treat it. Because what we know is that distraction is one of the most effective ways to help people with chronic pain.”

Fletcher says the first step is to have clinicians assess young pain patients as they try out the game, to determine how their pain is impairing them. They can then customize the game to slowly help the patient to gently move these painful areas.

Fletcher says patients often discover they can move through their pain a lot more than they thought they could.

“It allows us to distract the patient so that they can learn that they can do things and function with their pain. So it’s really just the first step in getting them to engage,” she says.

So far, the centre has four galaxy-themed video games created specifically for their pain centre. Each game is customizable so that therapists can increase the difficulty of the game based on their patients’ increasing ranges of motion.

The games also seem to help the hospital’s young pain patients to feel better mentally about their therapy and to reduce their anxiety. That can translate into patients being more willing to participate in their rehab, Fletcher says.

“We know that young people are technologically driven these days so it’s really a way to get them to engage. And they’re excited. They’re more willing to come in and be treated and follow through with what we recommend,” she says.

Researchers at the hospital are hoping that the technical data they’re collecting from the interactive games will help them come up with techniques to identify and monitor chronic pain in kids, as well as to evaluate techniques to treat it.

While Fletcher says more study is needed to assess the overall long-term effectiveness of the video game approach, she’s already seeing that patients are benefitting.

“What we can say is that clinically, we’re seeing success,” she says. “We’re seeing more follow-through and increased show rates in our clinic.”