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Virtual Reality Helps Kids Cope with Pain and Anxiety

Virtual reality (VR) is an immersive technology that brings children into a 3D imaginary world that looks and feels real. Children put on a VR headset, known as a head-mounted display, and use controllers to interact with the imaginary world. This technology has been used as a distraction tool to help children cope with pain and anxiety during medical procedures. Two Shriners Children’s hospitals have taken the initiative to use VR to improve the hospital experience of their patients.

Reggie Hamdy, M.D., and Argerie Tsimicalis, RN, Ph.D., at Shriners Children’s Canada, have conducted studies on the use of VR with patients since 2019. The main goal was to gather evidence on whether VR could be seamlessly introduced into clinical practice to help children manage procedural pain and anxiety.

At Shriners Children’s Spokane, clinical staff and recreational therapy staff have been using VR technology since 2019 as well. Patients utilize specialty VR goggles during their appointments and can select from a number for VR experiences like navigating an underwater adventure or taking part of a thrilling safari.

“We’ve had so many successes. When a child's attention is redirected to an attractive element, the perception of pain is hindered,” said Shriners Children’s Spokane recreational therapist Larissa Sims. “A lot of the time the reaction from the patient is ‘Ow that hurts. Then, look! There’s a whale.’”

With patients at Shriners Hospitals for Children Canada in Montreal, children play an interactive and immersive game, DREAM, during a medical procedure where they need to catch the balloons and diamonds stolen by purple trolls.This form of distraction is used for example, during the removal of orthopedic pins in the cast room or IVs in the treatment room.

“Having surgery, resetting a broken bone or starting an IV can be scary and painful for children. Virtual reality has been found to help children in these situations, using distraction to reduce pain and alleviate their fears. During these stressful situations, the patients, through the use of VR, enter a calm, imaginary world,” said Bryan Tompkins, M.D., one of the pediatric orthopedic surgeons at Shriners Children's Spokane. 

Virtual Reality for kids!

Thanks to the generosity of Spirit Halloween, Shriners Children’s Spokane utilizes specialty VR goggles during appointments to improve the hospital experience of their patients.
View Transcript


Well, there's more dolphins. There's like a school of them. I'm Henry and I'm 11. I broke my arm while I was snowboarding.It hurt a little bit. And I was a little bit nervous.


I'm Jeremy, I'm Henry's dad. And when we brought him to Shriner's last Monday, we were worried that he would have to have surgery, and when they offered the virtual reality headset to use instead of medication during the setting process, setting and casting process, I was sold on it.

Ryan Baker:

Using the VR, I was very much a skeptic in the very beginning. Didn't think it would necessarily do anything and I didn't buy in because I was used to giving medications and things. Whereas the virtual reality, after the first couple times we used it, it completely changed the whole persona. The kids were probably in and out the hospital a little bit more quickly. They didn't have to recover. And a lot of times it was saving them a trip to the operating room or something like that, too. So it's been a nice benefit and I've been all in after using it clinically, and with the assistance of Child Life being there and help walking kids through it's been fantastic.

Larissa Sims:

The virtual reality program here, it's all funded through the Spirit of Children funds. The Spirit of Halloween stores every year does a fundraiser that brings in money to the Child Life rec therapy department here at the hospital, and those funds go directly to things that impact the kids like this virtual reality program, and then other things that we do throughout the year.


Larissa and Dr. Baker during the setting were so amazing. It gets pretty graphic when you're setting a bone and Dr. Baker, I could see he was getting ready to set the bone, and Larissa distracted Henry by asking him what he was seeing in the virtual reality headset, and it totally distracted him, as his bone rebroke because he had broke it three days prior, so the fusing had already started. So it was amazing. He didn't even know what was going on.

Speaker 5:

So Henry, describe to me what you're seeing.


Well, I'm underwater right now. I see my boat. I'm just coming off of it. And there's a lot of fish and you can shoot them and they turn rainbow.

Larissa Sims:

We've had so many successes and a lot of times the reaction is a patient says, "Ow, that hurts," and then they turn and go, "There's a whale."


It was really fun, and it distracted me from the pain a lot. And it helped a lot. There was this underwater game where you would shoot the fish and they would turn a different color, and a safari game and you would shoot the animals with water and wash them off.

Larissa Sims:

It works really well because it pulls the patient's attention away from what's happening into this beautiful virtual world that's designed to be very relaxing. And because of that and with a little bit of cuing and telling the kids what to expect and what to do, they're able to get through their procedures really well.


I'm completely sold on it and very happy with the results.


It's like a miracle. It works like a charm and you can't really... It distracts you from the pain really well.

Ryan Baker:

Getting the funds and the fundraising that Spirit of Children has been able to contribute to the hospital gives us the opportunity to use pretty cool technology like kindVR and those sort of things to help make it a better experience so the kids aren't walking away from the hospital, thinking about either a needle poke, pain, getting an IV, or anything like that, and they're more walking away with, "I was playing a game. I was painting fish with bubbles," or whatever it may be as part of their departing experience and gifts that maybe they're not as fearful when they come back the second time.

Larissa Sims:

We do things all throughout the year to make the hospital less scary for children, whether they're in our clinic, in our fracture clinic, or seeing one of our doctors. And then it goes up to our patients that are on the inpatient unit that are having surgery, doing things with them also to make them have a good experience while they're here.


So I would like to thank all the employees and the owners of Spirit of the Children that put all the time and effort into raising the funds to provide the solutions to this hospital. It was it's amazing.


Shriners Hospitals for Children Canada is currently training healthcare professionals as VR Champions, so they may have their own VR headset and use it with their patients. Our first VR Champion is Angie Gugliotti, child life specialist who already helps children cope with pain and anxiety using various non-pharmacological tools and now can offer VR distraction to patients. “Since virtual reality is an electronic game it also appeals to today’s generation of children and teenagers as they spend much time immersed in the digital world. Virtual reality is an additional tool in our toolbox.” says Angie.  

Improving our young patients’ experiences through therapeutic intervention and new technology such as virtual reality can help to change the perception of a hospital and the anxiety-provoking experiences. VR therapy has the potential to revolutionize the standard of care, as ultimately the hope is that non-pharmaceutical pain management alternatives will reduce reliance on painkillers.

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