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Virtual Reality Shown to Reduce Blood Draw Pain in Kids

Boy giving blood sample


8 November 2017. Findings from a clinical trial show the use of virtual reality can prevent much of the pain and anxiety in children when drawing blood for tests. A team from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles published results of the trial in the 19 October issue of Journal of Pediatric Psychology (paid subscription required).

The research team of anesthesiology professor Jeffrey Gold and postdoctoral fellow Nicole Mahrer, now at UCLA, are seeking better ways of managing the experience of drawing blood from children needed for diagnostics. Many clinics have various methods to reduce pain and distract children while blood is drawn, such as showing movies, but the more immersive and multi-sensory nature of virtual reality, or VR, suggest the technology may be more effective.

“VR, especially immersive VR,” says Gold in a Children’s Hospital statement, “draws heavily on the limited cognitive resource of attention by drawing the user’s attention away from the hospital environment and the medical procedures and into the virtual world.” Gold is also on the medical school faculty at University of Southern California.

Gold and Mahrer recruited 143 children at an outpatient clinic for routine blood samples, who with their caregivers and phlebotomists — blood sampling specialists — took part in the trial. All participants, age 10 to 21, received the standard of care consisting of an topical anesthetic to deaden the pain. In addition, the children were randomly assigned to be shown a movie while the blood was drawn, or receive a virtual-reality experience while wearing a head set.

Participants and their caregivers were asked to complete standard measures of pain, anxiety, and satisfaction, both before and after the blood draws. In addition, the phlebotomists reported on the patients’ experiences during the blood draws. The researchers looked for differences between the two types of experiences on these measures, to evaluate the feasibility of virtual reality to help with blood draws.

The results show participants experiencing virtual reality reported less pain in their blood draws, as well as lower anxiety, than individuals shown a movie. Children who were particularly anxious about having their blood drawn seemed to respond more positively to virtual reality. In addition, both patients and their caregivers expressed satisfaction with the process. The authors conclude that virtual reality can change the blood sampling procedure into a pain-free experience, particularly for children with high levels of anxiety.

“Given the immersive and engaging nature of the VR experience,” notes Gold, “this technology has the capacity to act as a preventative intervention transforming the blood draw experience into a less distressing and potentially pain-free medical procedure.” He points out that the need for non-narcotic, or even non-pharmaceutical, tools to prevent pain may lead to use of virtual reality for other types of pain-inducing experiences.

“Ultimately, the aim of future VR investigations,” adds Gold, “should be to develop flexible VR environments to target specific acute and chronic pain conditions.”

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