Mike Derer  /  AP
Nykia Crawford, 10, plays a Game Boy electronic game as she is prepped for surgery by her doctors Anu Patel, left, John Kakauberi, center, and nurse Lizzie Jacobs at University Hospital in Newark, N.J., on Dec. 7.
updated 12/9/2004 4:12:32 PM ET 2004-12-09T21:12:32

Letting children play video games on a Game Boy in the operating room before undergoing surgery can help relax them better than tranquilizers or holding Mommy’s hand, researchers say.

Doctors found that allowing children a few minutes to play the games reduced their anxiety until the anesthesia took effect.

Dr. Anu Patel conducted the study after noticing a friend’s 7-year-old son was so absorbed with his Game Boy at a restaurant that he ignored the adults and the food at his table.

“We find that the children are just so happy with the Game Boy that they actually do forget where they are,” said Patel, an anesthesiologist at University Hospital in Newark who plans to present her findings Saturday at a medical conference.

Patel said the findings could be helpful because many parents do not want tranquilizers given to their children.

Avoiding anxiety-induced problems
Youngsters who are traumatized before surgery run the risk of long-term psychological problems, including nightmares, bed wetting and fear of being alone.

In addition, strapping a restless, frightened child to an operating table can cause a temporary blood pressure spike, make the heart race and trigger stress hormones that can delay healing, said Patel, also an assistant professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Other hospitals have long used teddy bears and games to distract children before surgery, but those techniques are generally employed in patient rooms, playrooms and waiting areas, not in the operating room. At Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, kids are encouraged to play in waiting areas before surgery and to take a “comfort item” — occasionally a Game Boy — into the operating room.

A Boston company, Design Continuum Inc., has begun testing a combination anesthesia mask and headset that would allow patients to play video games or listen to music, but distribution is years away.

Better than tranquilizers
Patel studied 4- to 12-year-olds in three groups of 26 children each. All had parents with them in the operating room until they were anesthetized. One group also got a tranquilizer, and the third group played with a Game Boy.

On average, the Game Boy group showed no increase in anxiety before surgery. But on a standard, 100-point scale for measuring preoperative anxiety, the tranquilizer group jumped 7.5 points and the parents-only group 17.5 points.

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Shani Willis, whose 10-year-old daughter Nykia had a cyst removed at the Newark hospital Tuesday, said the girl was nervous until she got a Game Boy. She then relaxed and played with it until she was anesthetized. “It was like she put everything out of her mind,” Willis said.

The hospital is considering making Game Boy use standard before pediatric surgery.

Dr. Erin Stucky, head of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on hospital care, said Game Boys should be used more widely in hospitals if a larger study produces the same results.

“This is great because this offers a wonderful ability to have the child’s attention immersed elsewhere,” she said.

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