What Virtual Reality Can Teach Us About Chronic Pain

Virtual reality may be the next innovation in the gaming world, but it also may offer real world benefits for chronic pain sufferers.

According to research published in Psychological Science, virtual reality is being used to see how physical and physiological factors impact chronic pain. Researchers say that misrepresenting physical positions through virtual reality can change how someone experiences pain. For example, researchers would outfit patients with a virtual reality device that appeared to show their neck torqued in a position of discomfort to determine how a perceived position impacts brain signals.

Virtual Reality

“Our findings show that the brain does not need danger messages coming from the tissues of the body in order to generate pain in that body part — sensible and reliable cues that predict impending pain are enough to produce the experience of pain,” said researcher G. Moseley of the University of South Australia. “These results suggest a new approach to developing treatments for pain that are based on separating the non-danger messages from the danger messages associated with a movement.”

The Virtual Study

To see how virtual movements impacted chronic pain perception in your brain, researchers recruited 24 chronic pain sufferers whose pain stemmed from several different conditions, including poor posture, tension, repeated strain, trauma and scoliosis. Participants were equipped with a virtual reality head-mounted display and were positioned to prevent excessive torso movement.

Once the headsets were in place, researchers asked participants to rotate their head until they experienced pain. What the participants didn’t know is that their virtual reality devices either:

  • Projected an over-rotated representation of the person’s neck.
  • Projected an under-rotated representation of the person’s neck.

After looking at the data, researchers uncovered that the feedback display had a significant impact on when the participant reported pain. Researchers found:

  • When head rotation was understated, participants rotated their heads about 6 percent farther than normal before reporting pain.
  • When head rotation was overstated, pain-free range of motion was reduced by an average of 7 percent.
  • Intensity of pain did not differ across the various representations.

“We were surprised at how robust and predictable this pattern of results was,” said Moseley. “If cues signaling danger amplify or indeed trigger pain, then these cues present a novel target for therapy.”