Beyond the distracting effect, they think immersing patients in VR may actually trigger the body’s own in-built 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 brains 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 in-built 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 a 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 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.

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.



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