Individuals can feel physical pain in several different ways, but those suffering from nerve injuries usually have a dysfunctional pain suppression system, which renders them specifically prone to discomfort.
Scientists have now revealed that the types of pain generally seen in people with nerve injuries can be reduced by virtual reality (VR)—and that VR can improve the dysfunctional pain suppression system, offering a potential game-changing hope to chronic pain sufferers.
Dr Sam Hughes, a Lecturer in Psychology from the University of Plymouth, headed the research work that targeted the conditioned pain modulation (CPM)—a pain inhibitory mechanism in human beings.
Along with collaborators from Imperial College London, Dr Hughes had earlier published a study that revealed that people who watch soothing 360-degree scenes of the Arctic in VR could have reduced pain symptoms analogous to those experienced at the time of sunburn.
The researchers demonstrated in the new study that VR can also decrease pain symptoms, like pain and prickling following touch, which are usually observed in patients suffering from a nerve injury.
The team also went one step further and quantified the direct effects of VR on CPM. Patients with nerve injuries have dysfunctional CPM; hence, by finding out the factors that can improve its action, investigators can help activate the natural pain-inhibiting process in the body.
Published in The Journal of Pain journal, the study demonstrated that 360-degree scenes of the Arctic in VR had an impact on CPM efficiency, whereas the 2D models of the same scenes (illustrated as “sham VR”) decreased the efficiency of CPM.
It’s brilliant that we’ve seen these results as it shows more evidence that virtual reality can not only reduce pain perception in human models of chronic pain, but also gives us insight into the mechanisms behind this effect. The next step of course is to conduct the study with people who experience chronic pain to see if it works for them.
Dr Sam Hughes, Study Lead and Lecturer in Psychology, University of Plymouth
“If it does work, it could be a really helpful in forming part of ongoing pain management by helping to target the dysfunctions in the brain that underpin chronic pain,” Dr Hughes concluded.
Mehesz., et al. (2021) Exposure to an Immersive Virtual Reality Environment can Modulate Perceptual Correlates of Endogenous Analgesia and Central Sensitization in Healthy Volunteers. The Journal of Pain. doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2020.12.007.