arctic landscape

Virtual reality arctic scenes could help to reduce pain for chronic sufferers

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Virtual reality (VR) experiences, such as those set in icy Arctic scenes, could help people suffering from chronic pain, researchers have said after conducting a trial.

The team from Imperial College London immersed participants in scenes of icebergs, frigid oceans and sprawling icescapes and they were asked to rate their perception of their ongoing pain and their sensitivity to painful stimuli.

The researchers said that beyond the distracting effect, they think immersing patients in VR may actually trigger the body’s own inbuilt pain-fighting systems.

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, 15 healthy 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 0-100 (from ‘no sensation’ to ‘worst pain imaginable’) while watching either a virtual reality scene of the Arctic or a still image on a screen.

They found that ongoing pain was reduced following VR immersion and that sensitivity to painful stimuli on the skin was also reduced. However, the same effect was not seen in people who looked at still images of the polar environment, showing immersion is the key factor.

The researchers said that 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 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.”

In June, E&T looked at how VR is being used to help people become more empathic by literally showing them the world through someone else’s eyes.

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