Nav: Home

Immersion in virtual reality scenes of the Arctic helps to ease people's pain

November 08, 2019

Watching immersive 360 videos of icy Arctic scenes helps to relieve intense burning pain and could hold hope for treating chronic pain, a small study has found.

Scientists from Imperial College London have found that using virtual reality headsets could combat increased sensitivity to pain, by immersing people in scenes of icebergs, frigid oceans and sprawling icescapes.

In a small proof-of-concept study, published in Pain Reports, a team from Imperial used VR video to reduce peoples' scores of perceived ongoing pain as well their sensitivity to painful stimuli.

According to the researchers, the findings add to the growing evidence for the potential of VR technology to help patients with chronic pain.

Beyond the distracting effect, they think immersing patients in VR may actually trigger the body's own inbuilt pain-fighting systems - reducing their sensitivity to painful stimuli and reducing the intensity of ongoing pain.

Dr Sam Hughes, from the MSk Lab at Imperial and first author on the paper, 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, brainstem 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."

Virtual reality has been trialled as a method to distract patients from the pain, with some success in minor dental procedures requiring local anaesthetic. But the latest study looked to see if it could work in a simulated model of chronic pain.

In the trial, 15 healthy volunteers were given a topical cream on the skin of their leg containing capsaicin - the fiery compound in chilis that makes your mouth burn. The capsaicin sensitised the skin, making the area more sensitive to painful stimuli (a very small electric shock) and mimicking the heightened sensitivity of people with chronic pain; such as lower back pain, arthritis, or nerve pain.

Participants were then asked to rate the pain caused by the capsaicin cream on a scale of 0-100 (from 'no sensation' to 'worst pain imaginable') while either watching a VR scene of arctic exploration through a headset, or looking at a still image of an Arctic scene on a monitor.

They were also asked to say when a stimulus applied directly to the sensitised skin area is perceived as painful.

The team 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.

They explain that while the initial findings are encouraging, the study is limited by the small number of healthy participants, without chronic pain. Future randomised controlled trials with chronic pain patients could also help to confirm its potential benefit for patients.

However, the researchers believe VR could hold the potential to treat patients with chronic pain who often have deficient inbuilt pain fighting systems. They suggest that using VR may provide an alternative therapy for some chronic pain conditions by improving activity in brain regions involved in these pain-relief systems.

The team, which included Dr Paul Strutton from the Department of Surgery & Cancer and MRes Biomedical Research student Ms Hongyan Zhao, now plans to further investigate the pathways involved in the VR dampening effect, including whether a dosing regimen would work - such as 30 minutes, four times a day - and if the effects would be cumulative or remain temporary.

"The aim of this study was to show VR has the ability to change the pathological processing associated with chronic pain," added Dr Hughes. "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 system's which can affect how pain sensitivity is processed in the spinal cord."

He added: "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."
-end-
1. 'Attenuation of capsaicin-induced ongoing pain and secondary hyperalgesia during exposure to an immersive virtual reality environment' by Sam Hughes et al. is published in Pain Reports. DOI: 10.1097/PR9.0000000000000790

2. The immersive video 'POLAR OBSESSION 360' by National Geographic, is available on YouTube - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jz2CZZeJsDc&t=35s

3. Imperial College London is one of the world's leading universities. The College's 17,000 students and 8,000 staff are expanding the frontiers of knowledge in science, medicine, engineering and business, and translating their discoveries into benefits for our society.

Founded in 1907, Imperial builds on a distinguished past - having pioneered penicillin, holography and fibre optics - to shape the future. Imperial researchers work across disciplines to improve health and wellbeing, understand the natural world, engineer novel solutions and lead the data revolution. This blend of academic excellence and its real-world application feeds into Imperial's exceptional learning environment, where students participate in research to push the limits of their degrees.

Imperial is the UK's most international university, according to Times Higher Education, with academic ties to more than 150 countries. Reuters named the College as the UK's most innovative university because of its exceptional entrepreneurial culture and ties to industry. http://www.imperial.ac.uk

Imperial College London

Related Chronic Pain Articles:

Molecular link between chronic pain and depression revealed
Researchers at Hokkaido University have identified the brain mechanism linking chronic pain and depression in rats.
How chikungunya virus may cause chronic joint pain
A new method for permanently marking cells infected with chikungunya virus could reveal how the virus continues to cause joint pain for months to years after the initial infection, according to a study published Aug.
Gastroesophageal reflux associated with chronic pain in temporomandibular joint
Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) is associated with chronic, painful temporomandibular disorder -- pain in the temporomandibular joint -- and anxiety and poor sleep contribute to this association, according to a study in CMAJ.
One step closer to chronic pain relief
While effective drugs against chronic pain are not just around the corner, researchers from Aarhus University, Denmark, have succeeded in identifying a protein as a future potential target for medicinal drugs.
Gut bacteria associated with chronic pain for first time
In a paper published today in the journal Pain, a Montreal-based research team has shown, for the first time, that there are alterations in the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tracts of people with fibromyalgia.
Nearly 5.4 million cancer survivors suffer chronic pain
A new report finds about one in three cancer survivors (34.6%) reported having chronic pain, representing nearly 5.4 million cancer survivors in the United States.
New opioid speeds up recovery without increasing pain sensitivity or risk of chronic pain
A new type of non-addictive opioid developed by researchers at Tulane University and the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System accelerates recovery time from pain compared to morphine without increasing pain sensitivity, according to a new study published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation.
New target for chronic pain relief confirmed by scientists
A research group at Hiroshima University observed a potential new target for chronic pain treatment.
Menopause symptoms nearly double the risk of chronic pain
In addition to the other health conditions affected by estrogen, it has also been shown to affect pain sensitivity.
Research finds opioids may help chronic pain, a little
In a study published today by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), McMaster University researchers reviewed 96 clinical trials with more than 26,000 participants and found opioids provide only small improvements in pain, physical functioning and sleep quality compared to a placebo.
More Chronic Pain News and Chronic Pain Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Accessing Better Health
Essential health care is a right, not a privilege ... or is it? This hour, TED speakers explore how we can give everyone access to a healthier way of life, despite who you are or where you live. Guests include physician Raj Panjabi, former NYC health commissioner Mary Bassett, researcher Michael Hendryx, and neuroscientist Rachel Wurzman.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#544 Prosperity Without Growth
The societies we live in are organised around growth, objects, and driving forward a constantly expanding economy as benchmarks of success and prosperity. But this growing consumption at all costs is at odds with our understanding of what our planet can support. How do we lower the environmental impact of economic activity? How do we redefine success and prosperity separate from GDP, which politicians and governments have focused on for decades? We speak with ecological economist Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, Director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Propserity, and author of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

An Announcement from Radiolab