Arctic virtual reality helps reduce chronic pain, study says

A small study revealed that watching 360° immersive videos of icy Arctic scenes could relieve intense pain and create hope for treating chronic pain. (Stefan Hendricks /Alfred-Wegener-Institut)
In recent years, several studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of watching immersive 360° videos using Virtual Reality (VR) technology to reduce chronic pain.

Researchers at Imperial College London used these studies as a basis for a new experiment involving VR. They immersed people in an Arctic environment to see if it could reduce their pain perception and sensitivity.

“The aim of this study was to show VR has the ability to change the pathological processing associated with chronic pain,” said Dr Sam Hughes, from the MSk Lab at Imperial and first author in a news release. “Using this approach does seem to reduce the overall intensity of the ongoing pain as well as the response we get on the skin.”

The small study published in the journal Pain Reports, shows that beyond distracting the patient from his pain, VR technology could also trigger the body’s own inbuilt pain-fighting response.

“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,” added Dr Hughes. “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.”

As part of the experiment, participants were asked to rate their pain on a scale of 0 to 100 (from “no sensation” to “worst pain imaginable”) while watching a still image of an Arctic scene on a monitor (Ian Joughin/Associated Press)
Recreate chronic pain

To conduct their experiment, researchers artificially created chronic pain on 15 healthy volunteers.

To do so, they applied a topical cream containing capsaicin the chemical found in chili peppers that makes your mouth burn on their legs. The cream sensitised the skin, making the area more sensitive to pain from very small electric shock. The sensation was similar to that felt by people with chronic pain, such as back pain, arthritis or nerve pain.

Participants were then asked to rate their pain on a scale of 0 to 100 (from “no sensation” to “worst pain imaginable”) while watching a still image of an Arctic scene on a monitor and then watching this National Geographic Arctic exploration video through a VR headset.

Researchers found that the immersion in scenes of icebergs, frigid oceans and sprawling icescapes reduced ongoing pain as well as sensitivity to painful stimuli on the skin.

However, these results did not apply to still images of polar environments, highlighting the effects of Virtual Reality.

Additional studies required

Aware of the limitations imposed by the small number of participants not suffering from chronic pain, the team plans to conduct new experiments.

They want to “further investigate the pathways involved in the VR dampening effect, including whether a dosing regimen would work – such as 30 minutes, four times a day – and if the effects would be cumulative or remain temporary”, says the news release.

We think there could be changes in the body’s pain relief system’s which can affect how pain sensitivity is processed in the spinal cord.Dr Sam Hughes, first author of the study

Based on the results of this experiment, Dr. Hughes hopes that VR will help treat patients with chronic pain in the future.

“There are still many things to figure out, but one exciting aspect of our study is that the VR design we used is completely passive – meaning patients don’t need to use their arms. Potentially, it could mean that patients who are bed-bound or can’t move their limbs, but with chronic pain, could still benefit from this approach.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Glacier-fed rivers in Arctic Canada sucking carbon dioxide out of the air: study, CBC News

Finland: Finland’s lingonberries can fight obesity, study says, Yle News

Greenland: What Arctic ice can tell us about plagues, climate and conflict in the Middle Ages, CBC News

United States: Super salty water in northern Alaska helping scientists learn about conditions for life in space, CBC News

Mathiew Leiser, Eye on the Arctic

Né dans le sud de la France d'une mère anglaise et d'un père français, Mathiew Leiser a parcouru le monde dès son plus jeune âge. Après des études de journalisme international à Londres, il a rapidement acquis différentes compétences journalistiques en travaillant comme journaliste indépendant dans divers médias. De la BBC à l'Agence France Presse en passant par l'agence d'UGC Newsflare, Mathiew a acquis de l'expérience dans différents domaines du journalisme. En 2019, il décide de s'installer à Montréal pour affronter les hivers rigoureux et profiter des beaux étés mais surtout développer son journalisme. Il a rapidement intégré Radio Canada International où il s'efforce de donner le meilleur de lui-même au sein des différentes équipes.

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