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Virtual Reality May Help Deal With Real Pain

With each passing day, the reach and influence of augmented reality and virtual reality is expanding. While VR’s use was limited to video games in the past, the technology has seen a sudden shift in interest, with several companies looking for its alternate applications. If researchers at the Imperial College London are to be believed, VR’s newest use may be in the management of chronic pain.

Can virtual reality dull physical pain?

Scientists discovered that exposing patients suffering from severe physical pain to virtual reality videos can numb some of their discomforts. The headsets relayed videos of the Arctic region, showcasing frigid oceans, icebergs and the expansive icescapes. The study, whose results have been published in the Journal Pain Report, is a promising revelation of virtual reality’s use for medical purposes.

The VR’s 360-degree view of the Arctic Ocean revealed that patients suffering from chronic pain reported reduced pain during the experiment. Furthermore, the sense of pain was muted when painful stimuli were introduced to the subjects. This experiment is just another piece of evidence tying virtual reality technology’s usefulness in chronic pain management cases.

Dr Sam Hughes, the first author of the paper, says that one of the symptoms of chronic pain is the increased sensitivity to such stimuli. In such cases, the patient’s brain is constantly fooling the body to perceive greater levels of pain than the reality. The heightened pain can become too much to bear, leading to immense discomfort.

The recent research suggests that VR technology interferes with the pain perceiving neurons in the patient’s brain. Therefore, the signal fails to move from the brain to the brainstem and spinal cord.

In previous cases of VR for pain management, dentists used the technology divert the subject’s mind while performing a procedure, which required local anaesthesia. However, in these cases, only minor success was visible.

How was the study conducted?

To ensure an accurate outcome from the study, researchers chose 15 healthy subjects to undergo the test. A topical cream containing the compound Capsaicin was applied on the skin of the leg. The chemical, commonly found in chillies, sensitised the leg region to pain. With this, scientists mimicked the heightened pain sensitivity present in patients suffering from chronic pain conditions, including arthritis, lower back pain and others. A small electric shock was introduced as the form of the painful stimulus within the experiment.

Participants in the test were asked to rate the pain they felt on a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 denoted no noticeable pain and 100 signified immense painful reaction. Subjects were divided into two groups. One group only looked at still images of the Arctic ocean, while the other group wore the VR headsets and watched a video of the icy region.

Those wearing the headset revealed a mild pain response to the topical cream and the electric shock, while the group looking at still images revealed normal levels of pain to the two stimuli. Further studies are now planned to determine the most effective dosing regimen for VR pain management therapy.



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