Video Games for Treating Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

The Benefits of Playing

Have you ever considered video games as a possible treatment for the cognitive dysfunction of fibromyalgia (FMS) or chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS)? Some research suggests that maybe you should.

Mother and adult daughter playing video games
Oliver Rossi / Getty Images

In fact, a rapidly growing body of research shows that video games can be beneficial for general cognitive skills as well as countering the cognitive effects of aging and neurological illnesses.

Often referred to as fibro fog or brain fog, the cognitive problems linked to FMS and ME/CFS can include a host of symptoms, including:

  • Working (short-term) memory problems;
  • Inability to multitask;
  • Difficulty learning new skills;
  • Language problems, such as forgetting common words or having trouble comprehending/retaining spoken language.

Video games haven't been studied specifically for ME/CFS. However, many of the cognitive symptoms of this illness are similar to those of FMS, and some research suggests that mechanisms may be the same or similar as well.

So should we use video games to help with our cognitive problems?


As of mid-2014, we only had one study looking specifically at video games and FMS.

It suggests that motion-controlled video games—such as Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 3 Move, and Microsoft Xbox Kinect—may have a couple of benefits for us.

Researchers had participants go through five sessions on each of those systems and evaluated their symptoms before and after. They say the games provided a distraction from pain as well as exercise.

Participants said the PS3 tended to be too fast-paced, the Xbox provided the best exercise, and the Wii had a nice slow pace.

The researchers point out that we often find exercise counterintuitive because it increases pain—something not all of them acknowledge. They further point out that games like these may offer an enjoyable form of low-impact exercise that could have benefits beyond cognitive function.

(Note: exercise-related problems may be even more pronounced in ME/CFS.)

With such limited information on how these games impact those of us with FMS and ME/CFS, it may help to look at what research says about other neurological illnesses as well as the healthy brain.

It's also important to look at research on aging, as some research suggests premature aging may contribute to cognitive dysfunction in FMS.

Other Neurological Illnesses

Research on other illnesses may not relate directly to FMS or ME/CFS, but it can illuminate the possibilities of game-related cognitive improvement in people with cognitive dysfunction.

A Spanish study of a Nintendo Wii program called Big Brain Academy, which is a game-based cognitive training program, showed that it was more effective at slowing rates of Alzheimer's-related mental decline than traditional pencil-and-paper tasks. It was also better at lessening symptoms of depression.

A 2014 study published in the journal Neurology looked at the cognitive benefits of motion-controlled games (in the case, a Nintendo Wii) versus a computer-based cognitive training program in people with Parkinson's disease. Researchers determined that using the Wii for sports games was at least as effective as the cognitive training program for people with this illness.

A 2013 study suggests that motion gaming has the potential to help autistic children with:

  • Memory,
  • Facial recognition,
  • Motor skills,
  • Social integration.

Healthy Brains

One major question is what types of cognitive functions video games improve—are they specific or widespread changes?

In a study on casual video-game play (meaning games not designed for the purpose of increasing cognitive ability), 15 hours of gameplay improved real-world performance in tasks associated with in-game tasks, but not in other areas of cognition. That means games requiring memory improve memory but not, say, math skills or reasoning skills.

(Possibly of special interest in FMS/ME/CFS: games that require divided attention did lead to improvements in real-world multitasking, which is frequently a problem for us.)

The same study showed that, in games that required reasoning, those with the lowest reasoning ability at the beginning showed the most gain.

However, some types of games may result in more wide-spread changes to brain function, according to a study of action-based video games.

The researcher cited earlier work showing that action games improved the speed of perceptual processing. They wanted to know whether that improvement extended to "cognitive flexibility," which is your ability to restructure knowledge in different ways as the situation changes.

They found that games emphasizing rapid switching between multiple sources of information along with action did appear to improve cognitive flexibility when measured by multiple real-world tasks.

Another area of focus for research is "brain plasticity," which refers to how well your brain is able to form new pathways in response to learning, behavioral changes, and your environment, etc.

One plasticity study supports a line of research suggesting that a more plastic brain is better able to translate tasks learned through video games to real-world tasks.

Aging Brains

Brain plasticity generally declines with aging. However, in a survey of casual video game play of different adult age groups, people reported beliefs that the games:

  • Made them mentally sharper and improved their memory (younger adults);
  • Improved their visuospatial skills and response times (older adults);
  • May offset declines in age-related brain function.

Another study looked at a multitasking game in 60- to 85-year-olds. A primary focus was the demand on the brain—in other words, how much of the brain's resources it took to perform several functions at once.

With training, the older adults' brains eventually needed fewer resources to multitask, even getting better results than untrained 20-year-old participants. Electroencephalography showed that age-related deficits were actually reversed by the training.

Furthermore, researchers say the benefits extended to other areas of cognition, including sustained attention and working memory, which lasted for six months beyond the conclusion of the study.

A survey of research on video games and the aging brain showed evidence for improvements in multiple cognitive functions, including:

  • Reaction time;
  • Multiple memory types, including working memory;
  • Executive function (planning, organization, strategy, attention, and managing time and space);
  • Reasoning abilities;
  • Task switching;
  • Global cognitive function.

However, it points out that the amount of increase varies greatly between studies, and that some studies have shown no impact at all on executive function.

Video games, and especially motion-controlled games, are relatively new and research into their cognitive effects is in the early stages. More work needs to be done in all of these areas to tell us about what types of impact they have and what works best on different types of dysfunction.

Video games may provide the additional benefit of distracting your brain enough to lessen your perception of pain.

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