No Pain, Lots of Game
AbstractYou might have heard the expression, "Take two aspirin, and call me in the morning." What if instead a doctor said, "Play two video games and call me in the morning"? Would you be shocked? Or think it was time for a new doctor? In this science fair project, you'll investigate whether video games, and other forms of mental distraction, have the power to relieve pain.
Kristin Strong, Science Buddies
Sandra Slutz, PhD, Science Buddies
In this science fair project, you will investigate if playing video games reduces the sensation of pain.
Have you ever come home from playing a rough game of sports and looked down and found a bad scrape on your knee? You realize you have no idea when or how you got hurt, because you felt nothing at the time, even though your knee may be really stinging now. This is an example of how distraction can relieve pain, that uncomfortable feeling you get when you are sick or injured. You don't like pain, of course, but it is very important to your survival. Without it, you'd be injuring yourself all the time without even knowing it.
Your brain knows there is pain when electrical warning signals are sent from the point of injury or disease all the way to your brain. As shown in Figure 1, the electrical signals start when special receptor cells, on the ends of peripheral nerve fibers, identify that injury or damage is taking place. These receptor cells send out their warning signals along the peripheral nerve fibers, which then carry the signal to the dorsal horn of the spinal cord, which is the major highway for relaying signals to the brain. Once in the brain, the pain signal is sent out to your brain's physical sensation center, emotional center, and thinking center, so you can decide what to do about it!
A pain source on your hand will travel through the peripheral nerve which connects to the dorsal horn. That dorsal horn will send the signal up the spinal tracts, pass the thalamus, and into the areas of the brain that control the limbic system and sensory cortex.
Figure 1. This drawing shows the pain pathway from the point of injury on a hand to the brain. (Dr. David L. Nelson, 2008.)
Not all pain signals reach the brain though. There are special gatekeeper cells in the spinal cord that can reduce or even block out the pain signals. For example, after you bump your knee, you might rub it. The signals sent by rubbing and touching the injured area affect the gatekeeper cells. They turn down the intensity of the pain signal, and reduce the sensation of pain.
The brain can also affect the gatekeepers. The brain can produce special chemicals called endorphins and enkephalins, which prompt the gatekeepers to dial down the pain.
How, or even if, you experience the sensation of pain is very complex and controlled by many factors, including your emotions, culture, genetics, age, gender, past experiences, and environment. For example, if you are hurt while you are tired, or in a nervous or worried state of mind, you will often have a greater sensation of pain, but if you are hurt while playing sports and your mind is focused on the game, you will often have a lesser sensation of pain.
Doctors and nurses use pain medications called analgesics to try and relieve pain. Depending on the type of pain, there are many other forms of pain relief that they may advise, too, including cold packs or warm baths, massage, acupuncture, yoga breathing techniques, meditation, mental imagery, and distraction. Distraction in the form of video games is now commonly used for burn patients who have to endure very painful daily treatments for their burns.
In this science fair project, you will test whether or not video games can increase your tolerance to unpleasant, cold ice water. So brace yourself! Your toes are about to take the polar bear dive!
Terms and Concepts
- Peripheral nerve fibers
- Dorsal horn
- Spinal cord
- Physical sensation center (somatosensory cortex)
- Emotional center (limbic system)
- Thinking center (frontal cortex)
- Gatekeeper cells
- Yoga breathing techniques
- Mental imagery
- Describe how pain travels from the point of injury to the brain.
- What do gatekeeper cells do and what influences them?
- What factors influence a person's sensation of pain?
- How do doctors and nurses try to relieve pain?
This source describes how video games are being used to help burn patients.
- Loyola University Health System. (2008, March 22). Virtual-reality Video Game to Help Burn Patients Play Their Way To Pain Relief. Science Daily. Retrieved June 19, 2008.
Materials and Equipment
- Large, flat, heavy bowl or basin
- Ice cubes, a few trays
- Cold water
- Kitchen thermometer, or any thermometer capable of reading temperatures between 30°F and 45°F. A suitable partial immersion thermometer or digital probe thermometer is available online from Carolina Biological Supply Company.
- Volunteers, at least three
- Computer or video game console (handheld consoles are fine too)
- Video games
- Lab notebook
- Graph paper
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Preparing the Ice Water
- Fill the bowl or basin with a single layer of ice cubes.
- Add cold water until the ice cubes are just covered.
- Measure the temperature of the ice water with a thermometer until the temperature stops changing rapidly, and is stable. Record the temperature of the ice water in your lab notebook.
Testing the Volunteer When He or She Is Not Distracted
- Obtain your first victim...I mean volunteer...and have him or her sit in a chair and remove any shoes, sandals, or socks. Be sure your volunteers know beforehand that they will be putting their feet into cold ice water.
- Spread a towel out on the floor in front of the chair and make sure there are no electrical cords or power strips underfoot. Have an adult help you place the bowl of ice water on top of the towel. Be very careful to avoid electrical cords. Water and electricity are a dangerous combination!
Have the volunteer carefully rest his or her heel on the edge of the bowl, being careful not to tip it over with the weight of his or her foot, as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. This photo shows how the volunteer should rest his or her foot in preparation for testing.
- Explain to the volunteer what you want him or her to do: "When I say go, dip all of your toes into the ice water, but keep your heel on the edge of the bowl. When you can't stand the cold anymore, take your toes out of the water."
Set the stopwatch at zero, and then say go, and press start on the stopwatch as the volunteer dips his or her toes into the ice water, as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. This photo shows a brave volunteer undergoing ice water testing.
- When the volunteer removes his or her toes from the ice water, press stop on the stopwatch and record the time in a data table for this volunteer in your lab notebook, as shown below. Do not let the volunteer stay in the ice water longer than 3 minutes (cold injury can occur). Stop the test if more than 3 minutes have passed, give that volunteer a polar bear award, and find a different test subject. If a volunteer is able to go past 3 minutes without distractions, this volunteer's insensitivity to cold does not make him or her a good test subject for your experiment, and you will need to find somebody else. If you do need to find a new volunteer, repeat the Testing the Volunteer When He or She Is Not Distracted section.
|Volunteer 1 Data Table
|Time Volunteer Kept Toes in the Ice Water Without Distractions (sec)
|Time Volunteer Kept Toes in the Ice Water While Playing a Video Game (sec)
|Average Time Of Trials (sec)
Testing the Volunteer While He or She Is Playing a Video Game
- Tell the volunteer that you are now going to repeat the test using the other foot, while he or she is playing a video game.
- Have the volunteer sit down and play a video game that he or she enjoys for 5 minutes. Use a stopwatch to monitor the time. While the volunteer is playing, check the temperature of the ice water with the thermometer, and if it has risen a degree or more from the previous reading, then add an ice cube or two to bring it back down to within one degree of your previous reading. Record the temperature in your lab notebook.
- When your volunteer has played the video game for at least 5 minutes, spread a towel out on the floor in front of him or her, as before, and have an adult place the bowl of ice water on top of the towel. Be careful to avoid any electrical cords.
- While the volunteer is playing, have the volunteer rest his or her heel of the other (untested) foot on the edge of the bowl, as in step 6, then have him or her dip the toes into the ice water while you start the stopwatch. Be sure to tell your volunteer to remove his or her foot when the water becomes too cold to stand any longer.
- Stop the stopwatch when the volunteer removes his or her foot from the ice water. Again, do not let the volunteer keep his or her foot in the water longer than 3 minutes, to prevent cold injury.
- Record the time that your volunteer's toes were in the ice water while he or she was playing a video game in the data table.
- Repeat Testing the Volunteer When He or She Is Not Distracted and Testing the Volunteer While He or She is Playing a Video Game for your other two volunteers.
- Then repeat Testing the Volunteer When He or She Is Not Distracted and Testing the Volunteer While He or She is Playing a Video Game sections two more times for each volunteer so that each volunteer has tested with and without distractions three times each. Make sure that you separate each volunteer's trial by at least 2 hours to let their feet recover, or the additional trials can even be on different days. Also make sure that your ice water is within one degree of your initial trials each time you get ready to test.
Combining and Analyzing Your Data Tables
- Gather your data tables for each volunteer and examine the averages. Do different volunteers have different tolerances to unpleasant sensations?
- For each volunteer, subtract the average time that the volunteer was able to keep his or her toes in the ice water without distractions, from the average time that the volunteer was able to keep his or her toes in the ice water while playing a video game, and enter that difference in a data table, like the one below, in your lab notebook. Did playing a video game increase the volunteer's tolerance to the cold ice water? By how much? Do you think video games are a good method to help a person manage pain?
|Differences Data Table
|Difference Between Average Time In the Ice Water While Playing Video Games and the Average Time In the Ice Water Without Distractions (sec)
Ask an Expert
- Compare TV- or DVD-viewing with video games to see if passive distraction (TV/DVD) is better or worse at increasing tolerance to the ice water than the active distraction of playing video games.
- Compare two forms of active distraction, such as playing video games with surfing the Internet, to see if one is better at increasing tolerance to unpleasant stimulation.
- Compare types of video games; for example, is an action-packed video game better at increasing pain tolerance than a card or puzzle video game?
- Compare gender differences: Do certain video games increase pain tolerance better in girls than in boys, or vice versa?
- Compare auditory with visual distraction to see which is better at increasing tolerance to pain.
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