The Role of Virtual Reality in Chronic Pain Treatment

virtual reality chronic painVirtual reality is a new technology that is supposed to immerse the viewer into a different space. It uses high technology and complex visual stimuli to place the viewer into an environment projected in goggles in front of your eyes. As you move your head, eyes and body, the scene in your goggles transforms and you move in that environment. Through advanced computing, one is moved from your current environment into the what is being projected in front of you. Initially, it has been used for video games and virtual sight seeing. It can place you in a remote mountain village, skiing down a slope, or visiting a refugee camp among other themes that have been done.

The cost of the computer equipment, camera, software, and headsets are now becoming more affordable. More content is now available, and with lower costs, new areas of use are being found. Time magazine this week has an article on its use in the medical field, and for the use to help manage pain. One company, DeepStream VR, is experimenting with virtual reality to treat acute and chronic pain. The company is using the virtual reality experience to distract a person’s mind from pain.

Virtual Reality and Chronic Pain

Virtual reality simply uses distraction to relieve pain. Basically, the brain can only perceive a couple of inputs at a time. While watching and listening to the immersive environment of virtual reality, the brain is distracted from the pain and therefore one does not perceive it. However, the claims by this company that a VR experience can relieve pain for a prolonged time may be overly optimistic. Other studies with similar technology have shown most of the relief is very short lived. Furthermore, unless the video and playback is extremely high quality, many people tend to get motion sickness and nausea. 

Visualization and cognitive strategies in the treatment of pain are not new. Most chronic pain patients benefit from the use of cognitive strategies to train the brain to be less responsive to pain signals. Psychological interventions have been used for years. These strategies have included everything from hypnosis, progressive relaxation, meditation, mindfulness, and multiple other techniques. Virtual reality is another way to of distract the brain from concentrating on painful sensations. When the brain is busy with other things, it just does not have the time to focus on painful stimuli.

In the future, as the technology and hardware improve and become affordable, virtual reality is likely to have a degree of potential for some people to at least temporarily distract a person from pain. The lucky group who can obtain longer relief from their symptoms by using distraction may benefit from virtual reality sessions. As with any of the cognitive strategies, the goal is to use the distraction of the brain from pain to prevent the need for reaching for another pill. Virtual reality is using a proven psychological technique in a new way that hopefully will help another group of pain patients.

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.”