Virtual reality (VR) can help to ease someone’s sensitivity to pain, new research suggests. Scientists at Imperial College London found that people immersed in VR scenes of the Arctic reported reduced pain sensations compared with those not using the technology.
The study suggests that immersion in VR can help disrupt some processes in the brain of those who suffer from chronic pain, helping to reduce the sensation of discomfort as a result.
Dr Sam Hughes, first author of the study, said: “One of the key features of chronic pain is you get increased sensitivity to painful stimuli. This means patients’ nerves are constantly ‘firing’ and telling their brain they are in a heightened state of pain.
“Our work suggests that VR may be interfering with processes in the brain, brain stem and spinal cord, which are known to be key parts of our inbuilt pain-fighting systems and are instrumental in regulating the spread of increased sensitivity to pain.”
In the proof-of-concept trial, volunteers had a topical cream applied to the skin of their leg which contained capsaicin – the fiery compound found in chillis which makes a person’s mouth burn.
This sensitised the area of skin where it was applied and made it more sensitive to a painful stimulus, which was a small electric shock.
Participants were then asked to rate the pain they felt from the cream on a scale while watching either a virtual reality scene of the Arctic or a still image on a screen.
They were also asked to say when they felt that the stimulus applied to their leg was painful.
The researchers found that those who used VR in the trial reported a reduced level of ongoing pain as well as reduced sensitivity to the stimulated pain compared with those who only looked at still images.
They said the results were encouraging, but admitted it did not offer concrete proof of VR’s positive effects because the test involved a limited set of results based on only a small number of healthy volunteers – 15 people – and not those who suffer from chronic pain.
However, they said they do believe the technology could be used as an alternative therapy in the future. “The aim of this study was to show VR has the ability to change the pathological processing associated with chronic pain,” Dr Hughes said.
“Using this approach does seem to reduce the overall intensity of the ongoing pain as well as the response we get on the skin. We think there could be changes in the body’s pain relief systems which can affect how pain sensitivity is processed in the spinal cord.
“There are still many things to figure out, but one exciting aspect of our study is that the VR design we used is completely passive – meaning patients don’t need to use their arms.
“Potentially, it could mean that patients who are bed-bound or can’t move their limbs, but with chronic pain, could still benefit from this approach.”