Video games have been apart of my life since I was a young girl. My eldest brother reluctantly gave me the second player controller to play games like Donkey Kong, Streetfighter, and Mortal Kombat on Nintendo 64. In high school, I frequented gaming cafes with my friends to play Counter-Strike or sat on shitty futons to play Mario Kart in the teenage hangout area my friends’ moms designated.
“Bubble Up!” my husband and I yelled millions of times while trying to beat Super Mario Brothers on Wii shortly after we wed. We’ve enjoyed hours of drinking and gaming together, but we deprioritized the pastime as the stress from work and chasing goals stole our free time.
The life changes we’d made coupled with quarantining during this pandemic have provided lots of new-found free time.
We partially filled our new free time with gaming after purchasing Ninetineo Switch Lites a few months ago. We bought the Switches solely for entertainment and something aside from watching TV that we can do in our apartment.
I had no idea how beneficial it would be for my Multiple Sclerosis (MS) symptoms.
In this post, I’ll share how I’ve incorporated playing video games into my wellness plan and the science I’ve found when searching for answers to my research question: Can Video Games Help People Living with MS?
How I’ve Incorporated Playing Video Games into my wellness plan
Sorry friends, this post isn’t your ticket to playing video games ALL day long. Staring at a screen and sitting for too long have adverse effects on the benefits you may experience for incorporating video games into your wellness plan. But if you love video games as I do, I encourage you to see how regularly playing them may help your pain and brain fog.
Pain and Discomfort Management
The winter is brutal. The combination of being less active and the cold weather increases the spasticity in my legs. I do my best to move my body, stretch frequently, and keep my heating pad on high. But most nights, I’m in bed by 7:30 or 8 PM because I just cannot stand the pain and discomfort anymore.
I’m in my early thirties. I’d rather wait until I’m an old lady for my bedtime to resemble that of a toddler. But this has been my reality for the last several years.
This winter, I tried a new strategy: video games.
What the science says about video games and pain
Researchers have studied whether playing video games may reduce pain in patients with varying health conditions. The results are encouraging, suggesting that video games may have an analgesic or painkiller-like effect.
For example, researchers studied whether video games may reduce pain and morphine use in children who experience severe pain from mucositis after chemotherapy. They found that the kids who played video games 2.3 hours per day used less morphine and pain relief medication and had less pain intensity and lower resting pain when compared to children who didn’t play video games.
Virtual reality (VR) has shown promising results in reducing pain and using opioids when treating burn victims and non-cancer-related severe pain. Another study involving ten chronic pain patients found short-term pain relief when using VR.
Your brain can only interpret so much at once. Distractions, such as video games, send more information for your brain to process. The concept behind using distraction as a pain management tool is that by flooding your brain with other information to process, it will ignore the pain sensations, at least temporarily.
How playing video games helped my pain management
A few months ago, I started playing a video game when I became fixated on my leg pain and discomfort. Video games perform far better for me as a distraction tool than reading a book or watching TV. The concentration and hand-eye coordination required to play video games are enough to overwhelm my brain. I quickly forget about the pain.
I don’t take painkillers to treat the pain caused by spasticity because narcotics are addictive and aren’t effective against nerve pain. Therefore, I can’t quantify my pain reduction like the scientific studies.
But I can say that I experienced far fewer early bedtimes this winter, and the distraction has improved my mental health. If the only side effect is that I have increased swearing from plunging Mario to his death, then I’ll keep video games as part of my pain management strategy.
Like 50 percent of people living with MS, I experience decreased cognitive function or brain fog. Our brains’ lesions can impact our memory, concentration, problem-solving, information processing, and visual or spatial abilities.
I often find myself caught in the fog, especially later in the day or during the final days leading up to my next Tysabri infusion. It’s hard to describe. Sometimes, I’m here, aware of my surroundings, but there’s a veil between me and the world. I hear my husband explaining something to me, but my brain is stuck when it’s my turn to talk. My words live in short imprisonment until something triggers my brain to function.
Forgotten words, unable to concentrate, and difficulty understanding new or complex information are MS symptoms that I frequently experience.
Historically, I’ve just dealt with brain fog by adjusting the tasks I work on while my brain figures itself out. I wouldn’t go on a hike when I’m exhausted, so why try to learn something new when my brain is tired? But it’s frustrating and can cause anxiety or stress, especially when I need to be “on.”
A few months ago, I started playing strategy or puzzle video games when I noticed brain fog to see if it would help.
What the science says about video games and brain fog
In a 2016 study, researchers at an Italian university studied whether playing video games can rehabilitate MS patients’ cognitive functions. Twenty-four MS patients played a video game for 30 minutes, five days per week for eight weeks. The video game included puzzles, word memory, and other mental challenges.
The study found cognitive improvements for MS patients compared to MS patients who didn’t play video games. Specifically, these MS patients substantially increased connectivity in the thalamus — one of the most important cognition-related brain networks. They also performed better in tests evaluating sustained attention and executive functions.
In simpler terms: this study found that playing video games five times a week for thirty minutes may increase your brain connectivity and improve your cognitive function, thus decreasing your brain fog.
How playing video games helps my brain fog
I don’t have a fancy machine or tests to evaluate whether video games improve my brain function. But I know my brain more than any scientist or doctor ever will.
Since I’ve added video games to my wellness program, I’ve noticed positive results.
A short gaming session wakes my brain. I play when I notice I’m having a hard time concentrating or connecting the dots. When I find myself staring at my computer, wondering, “what the hell am I supposed to be doing?” over and over, I’ll play a couple of levels of OverCooked! 2. My productivity and attention increase when I start working again.
I’ve noticed continuous improvements throughout the day since I’ve started a gaming routine. For example, my short-term memory seems improved, and I have improved focus during conversations with others.
Playing video games also gives me an outlet when my cognitive issues cause anxiety. I not only can distract myself but beating a level gives me instant reassurance that my mind is working, be it a bit differently than it once did.
We have to find and use all tools in our toolkit to improve our quality of life when living with a chronic illness. These tools are sometimes obvious, like ensuring we get adequate sleep and eating a well-balanced diet. Other tools offer subtle surprises. Playing video games to help manage or at least cope with your MS symptoms may be one of those surprising tools.
© 2020-2021 Alexys Carlton. All Rights Reserved.