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Study shows Virtual Reality game featuring snow helps reduce pain for child burn victims

Emma Hall
I was particularly interested to read a new study on paediatric distraction techniques to relieve the pain of dressing changes for young burn victims, not least since I recently took on a case of a 4-year-old seriously burnt in his bath.

The child, Oscar, was playing with mouldable bath foam, specifically aimed at children, when some of the foam flicked onto a bathroom candle and basically exploded, severely burning Oscar on his face and torso. His parents acted very quickly and cooled him down in a paddling pool in the garden while waiting for the ambulance. Oscar then spent eight days in hospital before being released home.

The personal injury case brought on Oscar's behalf is a product liability claim against the manufacturer of the bathtime foam under the Consumer Protection Act 1987 and the Trading Standards executive is currently investigating.

During his stay in hospital, and back at home, Oscar underwent regular dressing changes that were incredibly distressing for him and his family. This recent study, from the Nationwide Children's Hospital in the US associated with the Centre for Paediatric Trauma Research, highlights that the significant pain from dressing changes is often exacerbated by the anxiety of anticipating this pain, and although medication relieves the pain, it can have serious adverse side effects.

Prior studies have already looked at alternative approaches to pain reduction in burn injury patients that focus on distraction, including music, hypnosis, toys, and virtual reality (VR). Now, this most recent study reported significant positive results of using smartphone-based VR games during dressing changes in paediatric patients with second-degree burn injuries.

The game, called 'Virtual River Cruise', was specifically designed for the study to include a snowy, cooling environment within it. The second factor was the cognitive processing that encouraged active engagement.

The treatment group in the study who used the game had the lowest overall pain scores as compared to others who used toys and those who used nothing. The big advantage of the game is that it is easily portable on a smartphone into hospital and home settings and should reduce the amount of medication needed by burn victims.

It may seem a small thing, but one of the worrying aspects of Oscar's case is that no-one is sure of the mental impact the trauma has had on him. He currently is terrified to go into the bathroom at home and certainly hasn't had a bath since the incident. Anything that can soothe his mental and physical anguish would be a massive bonus.

Meanwhile, figures from the International Burn Injury Database indicate that there were 35,000 child admissions to specialised burn services in England and Wales in the five years 2014-18, most of whom were scalded by hot food or liquid spillage.

The focus of the British Burn Association and the Children's Burn Trust is always prevention, offering advice on how to keep the environment as safe as possible for young children. Their statistics include:

  • Across the board (children and adults) scalds are the most common cause of burn injury, representing 43% of acute burn injuries
  • It is estimated that on average 110 children per day are seen in emergency departments with burn injuries – 46 as a result of a hot cup of tea or coffee spill
  • The majority of burn injuries occurring to children are between 3pm and 6pm
  • The most common place of injury for children is in the home – 49% of whom are burnt in the kitchen
  • The average cost to the NHS for a major burn is £168,155.

And first-aid advice from the British Burn Association following a burn is:

  • Cool the burn with running cold tap water for 20 minutes and remove all clothing and jewellery (unless it is melted or stuck to the wound).
  • Call for help for any burn larger than a 50p coin: 999, 111 or your local GP for advice.
  • Cover with cling film or a sterile, non-fluffy dressing or cloth. Make sure the patient is kept warm.

National Burns Awareness Day this year is Wednesday 13 October.

Find out more about child injury claims.

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