Fifteen-year-old Reilly woke up one morning with a sharp, stabbing pain in his left leg that soon spread to other parts of his body. The pain, which started early last year, forced him to quit soccer, and he spent the next four months being poked, prodded and scanned by doctors.
The test results were inconclusive. “No one could tell him why he was in a ball on the floor unable to function,” said Nina, his mother, who agreed to be interviewed only on the condition that the family’s surname be withheld.
Finally, last June, Dr Sarah Rebstock, a pediatric anesthesiologist at Children’s National Medical Center, gave Reilly a diagnosis of chronic regional pain syndrome. The nerve disorder is characterized by chronic and severe burning pain, pathological changes in bone and skin, excessive sweating, tissue swelling and extreme sensitivity to touch.
Recently, Reilly stood in a half-lighted room of the hospital’s new Pain Medicine Care Complex, playing a video game called TubeRunner as part of his physical therapy routine.
The sight of the teenager reaching in the air and shuffling from side to side as his on-screen avatar hurled down an intergalactic tube racking up rings and gems seemed unremarkable. After all, game consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s Wii have become ubiquitous in American households, and many hospitals and clinics use them to add an element of fun to physical therapy.
But TubeRunner is one of four of galaxy-themed video games created specifically for this complex, where pain specialists and game developers are piloting an approach to measuring pain. Dr Julia Finkel hopes that using technical data from games and interactive activities to objectively identify and monitor pain can help determine how to evaluate the techniques used to treat it.
Microsoft released the Kinect for Windows last year as the company was encouraging researchers to explore health applications for the device, which was originally created for the Xbox game console.
The games draw on techniques from physical therapy and yoga to distract children from their pain, but also to increase their range of motion and strength. Clinicians will be able to use initial measurements to determine a baseline range of motions that each patient can perform in pain. By looking at how patients’ movements change over time, doctors will be able to determine whether a therapy works.