Games Unlock Relief for People With Chronic Pain
I had a shoulder injury in my early teens that took 10 years to heal
Two orthopedic surgeons and several physical therapists. And I still need regular physical therapy and daily medication. To keep my pain levels under control. When I was younger, I didn’t have the access to health care that I do now. I was lucky to have been treated by so many qualified professionals. But when I went to a local clinic with this injury as a child. The doctor told me to take Advil and move on. Without guidance or medication. I turned to the only thing that reliably relieved my pain: games.
Over the past couple of decades, several articles and studies have been published on games. And their ability to reduce pain through active distraction. In 2020 one study showed that patients experiencing chemotherapy-related pain reduced their pain by 30% by playing video games. However, few of these studies capture the experience of people with disabilities and other people with chronic pain who use games in the same way that I do – not as something prescribed, but as a tool, we discovered ourselves, as a tool to relieve our pain.
How do games help with pain?
Highly immersive games as well as engaging and repetitive games bring relief in moments of intense pain. Tiberius, who has a bone disease, told me how the games became a refuge. Tiberius and several other people interviewed for this article have chosen not to reveal their last names in order to maintain the confidentiality of their medical records. “Historically, I didn’t have much access to health care. Perhaps the most important thing games had to offer was escapism, having conceptual worlds to live in, especially when I was younger and not yet diagnosed. [with a bone disease]. It helped me stop thinking about my own body for a long period of time.”
Alex Roberts, a game designer and graduate student with chronic pain, also cites the hypnotic nature of games.
“When the pain is a strong and immediate, intense, repetitive and all-consuming video game will really completely separate me from my pain, like Mario Kart, Tetris or Puyo Puyo.”However, these respondents, and many others, explained that different games help to cope with pain in different ways. Some games ease the pain by allowing players to form communities with one another, especially tabletop RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons, in which multiple players team up to co-create a story. “If I’m not at the top of the pain scale,” says Roberts, “one of the best things I can do for my pain is to participate in a tabletop role-playing game campaign, just playing with friends every week. It keeps me from feeling locked inside my body and feeling bad about what my body is doing, but it’s also part of a meaningful and fulfilling life. … Games also allow people who experience very different pains to communicate.
Hayley, a college student with hydrocephalus,
notes that board games and gaming communities provide people with disabilities with a level of representation and self-expression that is rare in most media. “The board game has really good mechanics and elements like combat wheelchair [created by Sara Thompson]. There’s a whole community of board gamers with disabilities who are wondering: how can we revive the disabled adventurer in these conditions? While I’m not a wheelchair user, I find a lot of scope for this personality to be represented in games.” Other board games were specifically designed to center players with disabilities and characters such as Survival of the ability which was written by blind game designer Jacob Wood and focuses on disabled characters trying to survive a zombie apocalypse.
Do games have a future in healthcare?
Najmeh Khalili-Mahani, Ph.D., neuroscientist, biomedical engineer, and interdisciplinary researcher at Concordia and McGill Universities, who proposed digital strategy for large-scale qualitative health research, explained that the inclusion of games in conventional medicine is not in the near future. Existing studies have been small, she says, and larger sample sizes are needed to justify what is considered unconventional treatment. “Most of the existing evidence that games reduce pain comes from extreme cases such as burn victims or cancer patients. The literature is available, but the samples are very small. For a larger sample size, someone would have to invest a lot more money in it. So we’re stuck with morphine being the cheapest, fastest, most effective pain reliever with all its unwanted side effects.”
In addition, “games” as a subject of medical research
Is difficult to define with so many genres, forms, and cultural nuances. “Games are based on culture and they won’t affect everyone the same way. Games that I may find entertaining and pain-relieving may seem tedious and frustrating to you. How do we know which ones work for which people when the playing field is so huge? … I think and hope that the more media and sociologists start working together with medical professionals and researchers, the better understanding we will have,” Khalili-Mahani said. She went on to say that strengthening the individual testimonies of people who experience chronic pain is key to future research and the introduction of games as a component of healthcare. “I think the effective push will come from the bottom up, from the personal stories of patients that explain what works for them, what works for thousands of them. To the point that it can no longer be ignored.”