Long-lasting pain: could specially designed computer games bring children much needed relief?
First published on 18 June 2013
Updated on 5 November 2018
What did the project achieve?
“During my Research Training Fellowship in Oxford, I successfully completed the first ever clinical trial to investigate if computerised attention training can help alleviate symptoms experienced by young people with chronic pain,” says Dr Lauren Heathcote, now at Stanford University Medical School.
Many children and teenagers experience persistent or recurrent pain, which can be debilitating and seriously affect their quality of life. Dr Heathcote set out to investigate whether a special type of computerised training at home could help – an approach already shown to improve symptoms in adult patients.
She successfully enrolled 66 children with chronic pain to take part in the trial, who were then split randomly into three groups – one carrying out the actual computer training, and the others either doing mock training or none at all.
“It was really encouraging that children and their parents were so keen to take part in the trial,” says Dr Heathcote.
Dr Heathcote met all the parents and children before the trial, conducting detailed assessments of each child’s symptoms, disability and mood. They were then assessed again immediately after the four-week training period and three months later.
“After analysing our results, we were disappointed to find that our computer training approach did not improve their symptoms,” says Dr Heathcote. “But my Fellowship has led to a number of other benefits for the wider research field – including the development of an important new tool to assess pain-related thoughts in young people which is now being used by scientists around the world.”
“As a result of my work, the Oxford Centre for Children and Young People in Pain (OxCYPP) is now able to continue carrying out similar studies – which I hope will encourage more scientific research with young people in pain for years to come,” she adds.
This research was completed on 30 September 2016
Research Training Fellowship*: Lauren Heathcote
Studies suggest large numbers of children worldwide are living with long-term pain.1-3 Effects can be far reaching, for both the children and their families. Lauren Heathcote, a young researcher at the University of Oxford, is determined to help. She is investigating whether a possible new approach to treatment, involving specially designed computer games, has the potential to give children much-needed relief from long-lasting pain.
What is the problem and who does it affect?
Persistent or recurrent pain is a significant problem during childhood, with conservative estimates suggesting between 20 and 35 per cent of the world’s children and teenagers are affected.1,2 Common complaints include headaches, tummy ache and pain in muscles and joints, which can continue into adulthood.
“Living with pain can be disabling, and can cause huge strains on both the children affected and their families,” explains Ms Heathcote. “Some children miss a lot of school, or even drop out of school altogether, forcing parents to take time off work to look after them. Children may also withdraw from hobbies and social activities they would normally enjoy, spending more and more time at home, isolated from their peers. Sadly, many children who are living with long-lasting pain experience other problems too, such as fatigue, difficulties sleeping, anxiety and depression. They may even be at risk of suicide.”
What is the project trying to achieve?
“I am developing a new way to try and help children who are suffering from persistent or recurrent pain,” explains Ms Heathcote.
“We suspect that many children who live with pain over the long term think about pain, and respond to it, in a way that is different to other children. They might, for example pay much more attention to things that remind them of pain. It’s possible these styles of thinking actually make the children’s pain seem worse – making their pain seem more frequent or intense, for example, or even unavoidable.”
“I am developing a computerised training programme, which children could use in their own homes. The programme is designed to train children to pay less attention to signals of pain, and to change the way they think about pain for the better. We hope that these new thinking styles will become automatic for the children, without them having to make any conscious effort to think differently. “
“The ultimate aim is to stop children from worrying about and focusing so much on pain, make their pain seem less disabling and less intense, and improve their overall quality of life.”
What are the researchers’ credentials?
“This fellowship gives me a rare opportunity to work with esteemed scientists and clinicians who have successful track records in using research to make a real difference to the lives of children who are suffering from anxiety and pain,” says Ms Heathcote. “I feel incredibly honoured, privileged and grateful.”
* Research training fellow:
Each year, Action Medical Research awards these prestigious grants to help the brightest and best doctors and scientists develop their career in medical research.
You can read more about Lauren Heathcote's work on pain here.
|Project Leader||Ms Lauren Heathcote BSc MSc|
|Location||Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford|
|Grant awarded||18 March 2013|
|Start date||1 October 2013|
|End date||30 September 2016|
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1. Palermo T et al. Position statement from the American Pain Society. Assessment and management of children with chronic pain. 1/4/12
2. King S et al. The epidemiology of chronic pain in children and adolescents revisited: a systematic review. Pain 2011; 152: 2729-38.
3. Howard RF. Chronic pain problems in children and young people. Continuing education in anaesthesia. Critical Care & Pain 2011; 11: 219-23.