On the Horizon: Virtual Reality Therapy That Treats Chronic Pain

This post by Esther Hsieh was originally published in Scientific American on 6/11/15

Strap on a headset, immerse yourself in an alternate reality and cure your pain—that’s the idea of a recent study in Psychological Science.Most people think of pain as something that happens in the body—I twist my head too far, and my neck sends a “pain signal” to the brain to indicate that the twisting hurts. In reality, pain is simply the brain telling us we are in danger. Although certain nerve endings throughout the body can indeed detect bodily harm, their signals are only one factor that the brain uses to determine if we should experience pain. Many cases of chronic pain are thought to be the result of obsolete brain associations between movement and pain.

To explore the mind’s influence over pain, Daniel Harvie, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of South Australia, and his colleagues asked 24 participants who suffer from chronic neck pain to sit in a chair while wearing virtual-reality glasses and turn their head. The displays were manipulated to make the participants think that they were turning their head more or less than they actually were.

Subjects could swivel their head 6 percent more than usual if the virtual reality made them think they were turning less, and they could rotate 7 percent less than usual when they thought they were turning more.

The findings suggest that virtual-reality therapy has the potential to retrain the brain to understand that once painful movements are now safe, extinguishing the association with danger. Harvie believes that such therapy has the potential to restore full pain-free range of motion to people recovering from injuries and could perhaps help individuals with neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.

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