In a new study, researchers found that watching immersive 360 videos of icy Arctic scenes helps to relieve intense burning pain and could hold hope for treating chronic pain.
They found that using virtual reality headsets could combat increased sensitivity to pain, by immersing people in scenes of icebergs, frigid oceans, and sprawling icescapes.
The findings add to the growing evidence for the potential of VR technology to help patients with chronic pain.
The research was conducted by scientists from Imperial College London.
Virtual reality has been trialed as a method to distract patients from the pain, with some success in minor dental procedures requiring a local anesthetic.
But the latest study looked to see if it could work in a simulated model of chronic pain.
In the study, 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 sensitized 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.
The team used VR video to reduce peoples’ scores of perceived ongoing pain as well as their sensitivity to painful stimuli.
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 sensitized 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.
Beyond the distracting effect, the researchers 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.
One of the key features of chronic pain is people get increased sensitivity to painful stimuli. This means patients’ nerves are constantly ‘firing’ and telling their brains they are in a heightened state of pain.
This 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.
Future studies with chronic pain patients could also help to confirm its potential benefit for patients.
The study is published in Pain Reports.
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