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An adult wearing and interacting with a Virtual Reality headset. You can see a representation of the VR screen.

VR: A New Treatment for Chronic Pain?

A friend on Facebook recently posted an article about virtual reality (VR) being a possible tool or treatment to help patients with chronic pain: “Immersion in Virtual Reality Scenes of the Arctic Helps to Ease People’s Pain.” I don’t know that much about VR, and I’ve only tried it once briefly, but this article and the study it’s based on made me stop and think: Well, that’s interesting…and kind of weird. But does it work?

Research on virtual reality and pain sensitivity

According to the article for Science Daily, “Scientists from Imperial College London have found that using virtual reality headsets could combat increased sensitivity to pain, by immersing people in scenes of icebergs, frigid oceans, and sprawling ice-scapes. In a small study, published in Pain Reports, a team from Imperial used VR video to reduce peoples’ scores of perceived ongoing pain as well their sensitivity to painful stimuli.”1

So let me get this straight: Being immersed in a world of frigid, arctic temperatures and landscapes via virtual reality can help ease pain? The icy, cold factor of this makes a lot of sense to me, actually. Whenever my RA flares up, it’s cold and ice that makes my pain better. Cool, dry weather also helps my painful and swollen joints a lot. Heat and humidity and tropical weather, on the other hand, increase my pain and swelling and cause a lot of extra misery. When I’m hurting, I prefer my joints and my body to be cool or even cold.

What is virtual reality?

What exactly is virtual reality (VR), anyway? According to Wikipedia, “Virtual reality is a simulated experience that can be similar to or completely different from the real world. Applications of virtual reality can include entertainment (i.e. gaming) and educational purposes (i.e. medical or military training). Standard virtual reality systems use either headsets or multi-projected environments to generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations that simulate a user’s physical presence in a virtual environment. A person using virtual reality equipment is able to look around the artificial world, move around in it, and interact with virtual features or items.”2

VR to transport us to another world

In other words, whenever you participate in a VR experience, you slip on one of these special futuristic-looking headsets (that covers your eyes), and you’re then transported to another world or “reality” where you get to interact in that world, whatever it is. And according to the Imperial London study, escaping into a chilly arctic world can help relieve one’s burning, stabbing, chronic pain.

How does virtual reality ease physical, chronic pain?

But how does using VR actually work to ease real, physical pain? According to the Science Daily article, researchers think immersing patients in VR isn’t just a distraction, but “may actually trigger the body’s own inbuilt pain-fighting systems–reducing their sensitivity to painful stimuli and reducing the intensity of ongoing pain.”1

Would I try virtual reality for my RA?

Hmm! Really? Living with RA and chronic pain for 22 years, and never once going into remission, has forced me into trying many different medications and treatments over the years. I often get incredibly frustrated and exhausted trying out new things and having other people push new treatments and “miracle cures” at me.

Despite this, and my growing cynicism and apathy, I am still open to finding new ways to help my RA and my pain. On one hand, I’m simply desperate for something to actually work. Yet, on the other hand, I’m so fed up with all of the “experiments” my body has gone through with little to no success, that I don’t even want to try anymore. But, honestly, I do want to keep trying, of course. I just want to feel and be better so that I can live my life.

Am I willing to strap on one of these space-age VR headsets and take a freezing trip to the Arctic to help my pain? Sure, why not? I am a hardy Scandinavian Minnesotan, after all. Take me to the North Pole! And please take away my pain–even just for a little bit. I don’t think I’d mind being immersed in a world of ice and snow and beautiful wintery landscapes.

Excited for future research on virtual reality

Even though the Imperial College London’s study is a small one, I’m very curious and excited to see what the future holds for VR technology in connection with helping chronic pain patients. We need all the help and relief we can find, and we need better alternatives to pain medication that’s growing increasingly impossible to get, thanks to the “opioid crisis.” So sure, sign me up and strap me in for a nordic adventure! However, I also wouldn’t mind being whisked away to a relaxing, beautiful beach, now that I think of it.

 

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Imperial College London. (2019, November 8). Immersion in virtual reality scenes of the Arctic helps to ease people's pain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/11/191108074900.htm
  2. Virtual reality. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_reality

Comments

  • susan.nasuti
    3 days ago

    I have been playing computer games as long ago as when Prodigy existed, and video games since my daughter got her first Nintendo for Christmas in 1987, I think it was. When RA pain in my hands began to increase, I gave it up. Then my pain REALLY increased all over my body. I happened to read an article about computer/video game playing interrupting pain pathways to the brain, and decided to give it a try again. I switched to games which were more problem-solving and less about “jumping” ability and found that the article was true, at least for me. I play that infamous farm game on Facebook, and I have found that most of my farm friends that are long term also suffer from chronic disease processes, mostly pain-related, and the ones that I have asked about it say that when the pain starts, they start playing the game. I do wear a compression fabric tube on my “mouse” finger when playing to prevent further injury, but after playing (or typing) for awhile, I notice that my pain has been reduced in my entire body without taking medication, or any other pain relief modality (TENS, massage, ice, heat). It would seem to me that VR must work the same way, but I am pretty sure that my method is less expensive than buying a VR device!

  • Frazzled
    3 days ago

    Great article. What RA and Fibro have not stolen from me thus far is use of my fingers to play guitar. I am playing guitar, despite incredible, chronic pain, in church 3 times a month (which equals up to 12 services – 4 per weekend). When I play we are in a large auditorium with lights programmed for the service. I used in-ear monitors, which block out all ambient stage noise. All I hear is what I have programmed into my Aviom (a sound device that allows me to select how much of each instrument or vocalist). When I hear the click in my ear (metronome), I am immersed in a place where I mostly hear what I am playing, and in the need to concentrate on how and what I am playing. To me, this is my “happy place” because I feel no pain when I play.

    This is almost like VR in that I am no longer concentrating on my pain or stiffness, but rather in music I love and I am working hard to make it sound right.

    VR seems worth a try, but not with ice…I would need to be looking at a warm, sunny beach (with lots of sunscreen because every med we take makes us photosensitive!).

    Mike

  • Darlarayne
    3 days ago

    I too prefer the cold. Physical therapy always look at me funny when I beg for them to pile on the ice. I also don’t tolerate heat at all well. But to the point, I have used distraction for years to manage my pain, primarily audio books. My family can tell how well I’m doing by what book I’m listening too. I have several go to books for my bad days. I visualize the story being told and become my own VR.

  • Richard Faust moderator
    4 days ago

    Hi Angela. This is an interesting study, particularly the difference in impact between the immersive environment and still visuals from a similar environment.

    It would be interesting to see the researchers try the experiment on some people with actual chronic pain, as opposed to healthy people on who they tried to simulate chronic pain-like situation (does anyone with chronic pain even think such a simulation is possible). It was good that they acknowledged this limitation, but considering they only used 15 people, how hard could it have been to find some real patients.

    I think Mary is on to something concerning what type of environment a particular individual finds helpful or aggravating for their condition, especially considering the fact that they simulated pain by utilizing a “fiery compound” on the skin and then used icy virtual environments to try to alleviate the pain.

    All that said, it will be interesting to see some follow-up research on how VR might impact pain, possibly with some mapping of the brain to see just how pain sensors and centers are reacting. Best, Richard (RheumatoidArthritis.net Team)

  • Lawrence 'rick' Phillips moderator
    1 week ago

    I would try it. But no way would I do it with ice and cold. I am afraid just hearing about extreme cold makes me freeze and that is not something that helps me forget pain.

  • Mary Sophia Hawks moderator
    1 week ago

    Angela,
    Thanks for this. You and I are polar (get it??) opposites. The idea of being a cold environment makes me miserable.
    Heat is what helps me. I love spring and summer. Cold makes me stiff and extremely sore.
    Two things to ponder:
    1) Would a VR cold experience activate our Raynaud’s disease?
    2) Would a VR warm sunny beach help my symptoms?

    Mary Sophia Hawks, Rheumatoidarthritis.net moderator/author

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