The New Exciting World of Virtual Reality and Pain Management
When you are searching through your medicine cabinet desperate for something to ease pain, do you ever think of playing a game? It could be your best viable pain reliever. Psychology plays an important role in how we experience different kinds of pain – and we can manipulate those painful sensations by the way we feel and think.
Thanks to new and fast approaching technology, approaches like this to pain relief are starting to look very promising. Virtual reality games are helping us tackle acute pain simply by helping us focus on other things. A new study has shed some light on how this could work and how it might be improved as the future progresses.
Traditionally expensive technology has become more accessible to the average patient due to advances in computer graphics. This is especially true within the gaming world. Virtual reality systems are being developed for use by patients during procedures that may be painful like dental procedures or changing burns dressings.
The idea behind this is that by placing yourself in this immersive virtual world, we will be distracted from the painful experience. While only a few trials have tested the validity of such distraction so far, there is evidence that it may work wonders.
Why is it that virtual reality may lower the amount of pain we experience? Could it be the visual images, the sounds and lights, or the simple activity of pressing buttons? A study, published in Royal Society Open Science, gives a clue to the visual and auditory sensory information on pain. Researchers had a group of 27 volunteers put their hands in ice cold water (around 1⁰C) as long as they could tolerate it while playing a virtual reality game simultaneously. They played a first person racing game which was played using a head-mounted display and some noise-cancelling headphones.
The authors were looking to see if pain tolerance levels were affected by different percentages of sensory input from the VR game. The study findings showed the highest pain tolerance levels happened when visual and auditory sensory inputs were combined. Although playing music on its own – or even just showing images – also boosted levels of pain tolerance.
The researchers argue that sound levels may heighten the effects of the distraction from the game. To get even more efficient pain relief, it is possible to explore if different types of sound are important. Adding other multisensory interactions, like smell or touch, may also be important to the gaming experience.
This was a relatively small, lab-based study on already healthy individuals so we need to be careful not to draw many conclusions from it. The level of pain was relatively mild, controllable and it was less threatening than the pain that would be experienced by those in a clinical setting. What its demonstrates is a new way we could use virtual reality to manipulate different sensory inputs to best target and understand pain.
If such effects do translate into the clinic, there may be lessons for pain management beyond just playing virtual reality games. One example was shown when clinical trials found that distraction can help reduce pain from needles in children. That is due to the psychological effect of anticipating pain actually being worse. Maybe by studying the effects of multisensory virtual environments on acute pain procedures, scientists, doctors and developers will be able to work out how to further reduce this pain. A question is – what sounds will increase or decrease pain? This is something that will be explored.
We are starting to see other examples of how virtual reality could be used in cognitive behavioral approaches to pain management. Virtual games have been used as a source of exposure-based behavioral treatments for pain where a patient is placed in different virtual situations that they might avoid in normal life.
Whether this approach could be incorporated in pain management plans, perhaps even in the home, would be very interesting. As of now, few clinical trials have examined the efficacy of what is considered internet-based psychological pain management.
There is a need for evidence that pain management can work in practice, and will not make things worse. From a research standpoint, this is all very exciting. It seems we are getting better at working through pain using techniques like virtual reality. The techniques themselves are helping us to better understand the full multisensory experience of pain and how to manage pain.