Watching virtual reality scenes could help ease chronic pain symptoms, study finds

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The team found that when watching a virtual reality scene of the Arctic the pain scores registered by their volunteers were lower than when not watching the scenes


Virtually painless! Watching soothing 360-degree scenes of the Arctic in virtual reality can help to ease chronic pain, scientists claim

  • People were shown icebergs, freezing oceans and sprawling icescapes 
  • Volunteers were exposed to on-going pain and small electric shocks
  • Researchers hope it could help people with chronic pain condition in future

Watching calming virtual reality videos including Arctic scenes helps to relieve ‘intense burning pain’ and could treat chronic pain in the future, a study has found.

Using a virtual reality headset, researchers played full 360 degree views to people in pain and found it helped to reduce how much they were suffering. 

It was found that using the technology helped to not only reduced people’s perceived pain levels but also their sensitivity to painful stimuli. 

The team found that when watching a virtual reality scene of the Arctic the pain scores registered by their volunteers were lower than when not watching the scenes

People were shown scenes of icebergs, freezing oceans and sprawling icescapes as part of the small proof-of-concept study. 

This adds to the ‘growing evidence’ for the potential of virtual reality technology to help patients with chronic pain, according to the team from Imperial College London.

As part of the study 15 healthy volunteers had a topical cream applied that chills the skin and makes the mouth burn. The team then also applied small electric shocks to test their reaction to external stimuli.

While the results are encouraging, they do 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, researchers said.

The team say they would also want to test the outcome of alternative virtual reality scenes, beyond just Arctic vistas.

People were shown scenes of icebergs, freezing oceans and sprawling icescapes as part of the small proof-of-concept study

People were shown scenes of icebergs, freezing oceans and sprawling icescapes as part of the small proof-of-concept study

Beyond the distracting effect, Dr Hughes thinks immersing patients in VR, including showing them Arctic scenes like this one, may actually trigger the body's own inbuilt pain-fighting systems

Beyond the distracting effect, Dr Hughes thinks immersing patients in VR, including showing them Arctic scenes like this one, may actually trigger the body’s own inbuilt pain-fighting systems

The volunteers were asked to rate the pain they were suffering on a scale from 0 to 100 while either watching a VR scene through a headset or looking at a still image of an Arctic scene. 

The team found that when watching a VR scene the pain scores being registered were lower from both the cream and the electric shocks.

This didn’t occur in the patients who were looking at the still image.  

Dr Sam Hughes, first author on the paper, 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.’

He said using virtual reality headsets helped to distract people from the pain they were suffering, something that had already been shown in another study involving dental patients. 

Beyond the distracting effect, Dr Hughes thinks immersing patients in VR may actually trigger the body’s own inbuilt pain-fighting systems – reducing their sensitivity to painful stimuli and reducing the intensity of ongoing pain. 

‘Our work suggests that VR may be interfering with processes in the brain, brainstem and spinal cord, which are known to be key parts of our inbuilt pain-fighting systems,’ he said. 

The results 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, researchers said. They would also need to test other scenes beyond Arctic vistas such as this

The results 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, researchers said. They would also need to test other scenes beyond Arctic vistas such as this

Researchers hope virtual reality headsets and showing beautiful scenes like the one pictured could be used to help patients with chronic pain conditions who may be deficient in their own pain fighting systems

In future virtual reality headsets could provide an alternative therapy for some chronic pain conditions, according to Dr Hughes.

He said it could also help patients with chronic pain who often have deficient inbuilt pain fighting systems.  

‘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,’ Dr Hughes said.

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