Virtual reality has the potential to relieve an individual’s sensitivity to pain, according to a new study.
Researchers at Imperial College London placed a group of volunteers in an immersive VR environment with scenes of the Arctic after applying a cream to their legs containing capsaicin, the extract which gives a firey sensation to chilli peppers.
This made the area of skin where the cream was applied more sensitive to a small electric shock that was applied to stimulate pain.
The scientists found reduced pain reported by those testing the technology versus those who weren’t, indicating that VR plays some role in disrupting pain pathways to the brain.
According to Dr Sam Hughes, an author of the study, one of the key features of chronic pain is increased sensitivity to painful stimuli as a result of a patients’ nerves constantly “firing”.
“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,” he said.
The results offer a sign of progress for scientists looking to VR as a potential future therapy for chronic pain sufferers that may be bed-bound or unable to move their limbs, as no movement is required to use the technology.
But more work will need to be done to prove VR’s effectiveness in reducing pain sensations, as the researchers trialled the technology on a small group of 15 healthy individuals.
"The aim of this study was to show VR has the ability to change the pathological processing associated with chronic pain," Dr Hughes said.