VR offers hope for patients with zero injuries who suffer from chronic pain

We all experience physical pain in different ways, but people with zero injuries often have a dysfunctional pain suppression system, making them particularly prone to discomfort.

Now researchers have discovered that virtual reality (VR) can reduce the types of pain commonly seen in patients with zero injuries – and that VR can boost the pain prevention system dysfunctional, offering hope that game change could bring to people with chronic pain.

Dr Sam Hughes, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Plymouth, led the study with a focus on positional pain modification (CPM) – a pain prevention pathway in humans.

He and his colleagues at Imperial College London had previously published work showing that watching quiet 360-degree views of the Arctic can actually help reduce pain symptoms similar to those experienced at sunburn.

In the current study they showed that VR can also reduce pain symptoms such as prickling and post-traumatic pain, which is often seen in patients with zero injuries.

They have also gone a step further and measured the direct impact of VR on CPM. CPM is uncommon in patients with zero injuries, so by knowing what can promote its activation, scientists can help stimulate the body’s natural pain suppression process.

The study, published in The Journal of Pain, showing that 360-degree views of the Arctic actually affected the effectiveness of CPM, while the 2D versions of the same scenes (defined as ‘sham VR’) reduced the effectiveness of CPM .

It is remarkable that we have seen these results because it shows more evidence that in terms of pain can not only reduce the perception of pain in human models of chronic pain, but also give us an insight into the mechanisms which is behind this effect. The next step of course is to do the study with people who are experiencing chronic pain to see if it works for them.

If it works, it can be very helpful in being involved in the management of chronic pain by helping to target the brain disorders that underlie chronic pain. “

Dr Sam Hughes, Lecturer in Psychology, University of Plymouth


Magazine Reference:

Mehesz, E., et al. (2021) Exposure to a changing soft virtual environment may produce visual findings of endogenous analgesia and moderate sensitization in healthy volunteers. The Journal of Pain. doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2020.12.007.