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Virtual reality technology helping kids with extreme needle anxiety

Smileyscope VR
Posted at 1:34 PM, Nov 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-05 13:34:38-04

CHICAGO, Ill. — As the vaccine rollout for kids ages 5 to 11 begins to roll out, some parents may be confronted with children who might want to avoid a trip to the doctor’s office. An estimated 63% of children are afraid of needles, but technology is aiding families in reducing that fear and anxiety.

Like most 8-year-old kids, Molly Chandler dreads getting a shot at the doctor’s office.

“I just don't like them. They hurt,” she said.

But for the third-grader, the fear of needles is actually debilitating.

“Any time she had to get vaccinations, we struggled,” said Molly’s mother Jeanne Chandler. “A quick three-second prick, but it took her like 30 minutes to recover from it. And it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is intense.’”

But scientists are testing out a new piece of virtual reality technology that could help.

“These particular sets of goggles have a program in them that is specifically designed to have the experience match up with a child, getting a shot or poke an injection,” said Shira Miller, Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy Manager at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Using the VR goggles, 7-year-old Meechie Jeans, who is battling leukemia, was transported to a virtual sea adventure. It allowed his nurses to access his needle port while distracting him from any pain or anxiety.

“It's nice that he can hear too, so I'm telling him what I'm doing, but he's focusing more on the screen and the VR goggles,” said Maggie Kois, Meechie’s nurse.

Designed by Australian physicians, the Smileyscope synchronizes real-world medical procedures with the virtual experience. The system can be used during vaccinations, IV placements and even blood draws.

“For example, when you're having the alcohol wipe on your skin within the VR timing, you're having little fish like swim across you,” said Miller.

Those visual distractions can trick the mind to separate the pain and anxiety of negative stimuli and replace it with something more positive.

“Basically, it helps the child's brain reformulate the sensory experience so that the shot is less stressful and scary,” said Miller.

When Molly was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer, that meant facing even more needles for chemotherapy.

“My first thought was, 'How is this girl who has major needle anxiety going to go through chemo and get poked every week?'” said Chandler.

Molly’s needle anxiety got so bad that they sometimes had to turn around without treatment. But that all changed once she put on a pair of the Smileyscope goggles.

“Whenever I'm in there, I can't even feel when I get poked,” she said. “I like how they narrate the fish. But be careful, they might nibble a little. That's, I think, what they mean when you get poked.”

“She was totally immersed in what was happening with the VR goggles, and she's like, ‘OK, you can get started,' and they're like, ‘We're done,’” said Chandler. “She didn't have needle anxiety. She wasn't anxious about going to chemo after that.”

Next week, Molly’s scheduled to get her first COVID-19 vaccine dose. When asked if she’s scared about the needle, her response was quick and honest.

“Yes, a lot. Yeah.”

And while she’s apprehensive, she says she’s confident she’ll get through it.