Patients suffering from chronic pain could find ease by becoming virtually immersed in scenes of icebergs, frozen oceans and sprawling icescapes, a study has shown.
Imperial College London scientists have demonstrated that wearing VR headsets which played videos from the North Pole helps relieve intense burning pain.
As well has having a distracting effect, researchers think immersing patients in virtual reality may trigger the body’s own inbuilt pain-fighting systems, calming the discomfort.
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 brain 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 inbuilt pain-fighting systems and are instrumental in regulating the spread of increased sensitivity to pain.”
In the trial, 15 healthy volunteers were given a topical cream on the skin of their leg containing capsaicin – the fiery compound in chilies that makes the mouth burn.
Once the capsaicin had sensitised the skin, subjects were also given small electric shocks mimicking the heightened sensitivity of people with chronic pain; such as lower back pain, arthritis, or nerve pain.