Does playing video games help reduce pain?

A study from the American Pain Society shows that playing 3D video games helps reduce the brain's response to physical pain.

Dong Ngo SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews
CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.
Dong Ngo
2 min read

Playing 3D virtual reality games can significantly help reduce pain, one study says.
Playing 3D virtual reality games can significantly help reduce pain, one study says. Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

If you're looking forward to playing lots of video games this holiday season (and deep down feeling kind of guilty about it), try this excuse. And it's a good one. Apparently, games offer more benefits than just vast entertainment.

According to a study from the American Pain Society, a multidisciplinary community of scientists and clinicians who work to reduce pain-related suffering, video games, and more specifically those that incorporate 3D virtual reality, could help reduce physical pain.

Generally, it's believed that as we play games, our focus shifts away from the pain and therefore we temporarily forget about it. But the study finds that the mechanism of pain relief in gaming is actually a lot more complicated than common distraction and can deal with even greater, more serious pain.

For example, the study shows that when immersed in the virtual world of gaming, those who are undergoing serious procedures, like chemotherapy, report significantly less stress and trepidation. For burn wound care, it's also reported that patients' pain ratings decreased by 30 to 50 percent.

Dr. Charles Friedman of the Pain Relief Centers explained that when playing 3D games in a virtual reality, the brain busies itself using other senses, like vision and touch, and releases endorphins, a chemical that generally makes us feel good. At the same time, the virtual experience helps produce a numbing response in brain regions associated with pain.

According to the researchers, there are biochemical changes that occur when a patient is in the full virtual-reality environment. Basically they decrease signals in areas of the brain associated with pain.

Note, however, these effects require a fully engrossing virtual-reality gaming system, such as the Kinect from Microsoft, a large TV, and surround sound. According to Friedman, though, existing products like the Xbox and Wii with a moderate TV and sound system can "certainly play a role in relieving some pain with distraction."

So there you go: it might not be a bad idea to ask for an awesome gaming system for Christmas or just bring your PSP along with you when you go get a novacaine shot next time.

Remember, though, that gaming can only help with the physical pain. With pain that's associated with lack of social skills, friends, or a partner, you'd need to brush up on a totally different kind of gaming.