According to a study published in The Journal of Pain, Virtual Reality (VR) can reduce pain symptoms such as prickling and pain following touch, which are typically seen in patients with nerve injury, by boosting their dysfunctional pain suppression system.
Virtual reality bridges the gap between digital and physical worlds by allowing the user to visually take in information and content in the same way as one takes in the real world.
Researchers had earlier published studies on how watching soothing 360-degree scenes of the Arctic through virtual reality can effectively ease the pain symptoms similar to those experienced during sunburn.
Unlike others who experience physical pain, people suffering from nerve injuries have a pain suppressant system which makes them particularly prone to discomfort. The study focused on conditioned pain modulation (CPM), a pain inhibitory pathway in humans. The team also measured VR's direct effects on CPM.
In patients with nerve injury, the CPM is dysfunctional. Hence by observing what will enhance the action of CPM, the body's natural pain inhibiting process can be stimulated, said the researchers.
The findings showed that 360-degree scenes of the Arctic in virtual reality positively affected the CPM and increased its efficiency, while the 2D versions of the same scenes (described as 'sham VR') reduced CPM efficiency.
"It's brilliant that we've seen these results as it shows more evidence that virtual reality can not only reduce pain perception in human models of chronic pain but also gives us insight into the mechanisms behind this effect," said researcher Sam Hughes, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Plymouth.
The researchers said that the next significant step is to conduct a similar study on people who suffer from chronic pain and check if it works on them as well because if it does have a positive impact, it could be instrumental in forming a part of ongoing pain management by targeting the dysfunctions in the brain that underpin chronic pain.