Video Gaming: A “Digital Narcotic”

The man was 29 and newly discharged from the military but not yet working. He spent all day every day, for almost two months, compulsively playing Candy Crush on his smartphone. He was so addicted to the video game that he played right through the severe pain of rupturing a tendon in his thumb.

How, doctors wondered, was his sensation of pain so muted? Was his immersion in the Candy Crush game, which more than 500 million others have downloaded since its debut in 2012, effectively blunting his pain perception?

The short answer, according to researchers, is possibly “yes.” That was the conclusion of a provocative new study using the right-handed man as a subject.

Addictive Gaming Leads to Insight

“The potential for video games to reduce pain perception raises clinical and social considerations about excessive use, abuse, and addiction,” wrote the authors of the study published online in April 2015 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

It was pure coincidence that the injured gamer sought medical attention from a U.S. Navy medical hospital that employed Andrew Doan, MD, PhD, who’s written and lectured extensively about his own video game addiction and recovery. An eye surgeon, Dr. Doan compulsively played online video games while attending medical school, and spent so many hours a day at it that he developed injuries that included hemorrhoids from sitting so long.

A Doctor Who Knew His Pain

When the man showed up at the hospital unable to move his right thumb and was asked how he might’ve hurt it, the answer was easy: He was doing nothing else but gaming. Doan was familiar with the type, and intrigued.

With patients sent in by their superiors for poor job performance or lack of focus, Doan started noticing that the real source of the problem was lack of sleep — not from insomnia, but from endless hours of video gaming, Doan said. This led to him becoming head of the Department of Mental Health Addictions and Resilience Research at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego.

Video Gaming as a “Digital Narcotic”

“The patient didn't feel the tendonitis in his finger and kept playing and playing, eventually rupturing the tendon,” Doan, one of the JAMA study authors, said in an interview. “The compulsive gaming became like a digital narcotic.”

Prior studies have looked at how patients, especially burn victims, might be visually distracted from their pain by immersion into the three-dimensional computer world of games. Doan suspects that gaming patients with pain might be distracted more “based on the whole experience.”

But the potential applications are extensive, Doan said, and include use of video games to treat anything that a patient is trying to “gut through” — from detox to chronic pain to anxiety — even by “creating new dreams that replace the bad dreams experienced with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].”

About Video Gaming Addiction

Excessive Internet use and video gaming fall under the broader term of “technology addiction,” which isn’t included in the latest (fifth) edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).  Studies show that between 6 and 13 percent of the general population, and 13 to 19 percent of young adults, suffer from technology dependence, according to Hilarie Cash, PhD, co-founder of reSTART, the Seattle technology addiction treatment center.

Doan and Dr. Cash, who’ve spoken together at the annual conference of the American Medical Association, view treatment of problem video gaming differently. Cash’s treatment requires abstinence, while Doan says moderation and setting limits may also work for some gamers.

Regardless of how video gaming is classified, the authors of the JAMA study said it needs further examination. “Future research should consider whether pain reduction is a reason some individuals play video games excessively, manifest addiction, or sustain injuries associated with video gaming,” the study’s report concluded.

By Nancy Wride

Follow Nancy on Twitter at @NWride

Posted on July 29th, 2015

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