Researchers say watching VR scenes of the Arctic can ease burning pain

Scientists from Imperial College London have announced that they have found that using VR headsets can combat increased sensitivity to pain. Specifically, the researchers say that immersing people in scenes of icebergs, frigid oceans, and icescape can help reduce pain. A team conducted a small proof-of-concept study where they used VR to reduce the score of perceived pain as well as sensitivity to painful stimuli.The team says that the findings add to mounting evidence that VR can help people who suffer from chronic pain. The researchers believe that beyond the distracting effect that the VR content has, immersing people in VR may be triggering the body's own pain-fighting system to reduce their sensitivity to painful stimuli and reduce the intensity of ongoing pain.

Dr. Sam Hughes says that the team's work suggests that VR may be interfering with processes in the brain, brainstem, and spinal cord that are known to be parts of the body's integrated pain-fighting system. Previous research had trialed VR as a method to distract patients from the pain associated with minor dental procedures. The latest study looks to see if it can work in a simulated model of chronic pain.

The trial involved 15 healthy volunteers that were given a topical cream on the skin of their leg that contained capsaicin, the compound in peppers that makes the mouth burn. That cream sensitized the skin making the area more sensitive to painful stimuli of a small electric shock. Participants were asked to rate pain on a scale of 0-100 while watching a VR scene of arctic exploration via a headset or looking at a still image of an Arctic scene on a monitor.

The team found that ongoing pain was reduced following VR immersion and that sensitivity to painful stimuli was also reduced. The same effect wasn't seen on people who looked at still images of a polar environment. The team says that immersion is the key factor.