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Treating Pain With VR?
Viewing virtual videos of arctic scenes helps significantly reduce pain. Can this knowledge be used in the future to treat chronic pain?
The latest study by Imperial College London found that severe pain can be reduced by viewing immersive virtual videos. The results of the study were published in the English language journal "Pain Reports".
What do immersive VR videos do for pain?
When people watch immersive (the term describes immersion in the content of a medium) 360-degree videos of cold, icy places in the Arctic, this can reduce existing pain. The use of so-called virtual reality headsets could be useful in the treatment of increased sensitivity to pain, the researchers report. Affected people would only have to dive into scenes of icebergs, cold oceans and extensive ice landscapes using the technology.
VR video helped reduce chronic pain
In the current proof-of-concept study, the team used VR videos to reduce perceived chronic pain and sensitivity to painful stimuli. According to the researchers, the potential of VR technology in the treatment of chronic pain became clear.
Activate the body's pain management systems
The research group believes that immersing patients in virtual reality can actually trigger the body's pain management systems. This reduces sensitivity to painful stimuli and reduces the intensity of chronic pain.
How does VR reduce chronic pain?
“One of the main characteristics of chronic pain is the increased sensitivity to painful stimuli. This means that the patient's nerves fire constantly and tell their brain that they are in an increased state of pain. Our work suggests that VR disrupts the processes in the brain, brain stem and spinal cord, which are known to be key components of our built-in pain control systems and help regulate the spread of increased sensitivity to pain, ”reports Dr. Sam Hughes from Imperial College London in a press release.
VR helps reduce pain during dental procedures
Virtual reality has already been tried out as a method to distract patients from pain. There has been some success with minor dental procedures that required local anesthesia. The current study now examined whether the method could work in a simulated model of chronic pain.
Cream with capsaicin caused pain
In the study, 15 healthy people applied a capsaicin-containing cream to the skin of their legs. The capsaicin sensitizes the skin, makes the area more sensitive to painful stimuli (a low electrical impulse) and mimics the increased sensitivity of people with chronic pain such as back pain, arthritis or nerve pain, the researchers report.
How did the investigation work?
Participants were then asked to rate the pain caused by the cream on a 0 to 100 scale (no sensation to worst pain imaginable) while viewing either an arctic scene using VR glasses or a still image of an arctic scene on a monitor . They were also asked when the stimulus applied directly to the sensitized skin area was felt to be painful.
VR reduced pain and skin sensitivity
It was found that chronic pain after immersion in virtual reality was reduced and sensitivity to painful stimuli on the skin also decreased. The same effect could not be observed in people who only looked at still images of the polar environment.
More research is needed
Since the study was limited by the small number of participants, future randomized controlled trials should be carried out to check the potential benefits for the patients. The team believes that VR could have the potential to treat people with chronic pain who often have inadequate pain management systems. The use of VR could offer an alternative therapy for some chronic pain conditions by improving activity in brain regions that are involved in pain-relieving systems.
VR changes the pathological processing of chronic pain
“The aim of this study was to show that VR has the ability to change the pathological processing associated with chronic pain. Using this approach appears to reduce the overall intensity of persistent pain as well as the response we get on the skin. We think that there may be changes in the body's pain system that can affect the processing of pain sensitivity in the spinal cord, ”explains Dr. Hughes. (as)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
- Sam W. Hughes, Hongyan Zhao, Edouard J. Auvinet, Paul H. Strutton: Attenuation of capsaicin-induced ongoing pain and secondary hyperalgesia during exposure to an immersive virtual reality environment, in Pain Reports (query: 08.11.2019), Pain Reports
- Immersion in virtual reality scenes of the Arctic helps to ease people’s pain, Imperial College London (query: 08.11.2019), Imperial College London