A recent report published for the Association of Psychological Science evidences that virtual reality can help patients suffering from neck pain misinterpret how far their neck is turned; which can change the pain levels experienced by those suffering from chronic neck pain.
Pain is not only triggered by physiological sources, but emotional, cognitive, and sensory cues as well. These factors all play a part in how and when we feel pain. This new research indicates that by altering the brain’s visual cues; we can control the pain messages sent to the brain.
We experience pain through danger and non-danger signals
Findings show that the brain does not necessarily need to receive danger cues from a particular body part in order to cause pain in that specific body part. Other sensory cues can also play a part in producing feelings of pain.
Scientists at the University of South Australia are generating research results that suggest ways of developing various pain treatments by separating the danger messages from the non-danger messages, which are associated with movements that may be triggering chronic pain symptoms.
How the Oculus Rift is changing what we know about pain
The study involved 24 subjects who suffered from chronic neck pain for an average of eleven years from a multitude of issues including posture, repetitious strain, tension, scoliosis, and trauma. The participants were tasked with sitting in a chair while wearing the newest virtual reality headgear, called Oculus Rift. Virtual indoor and outdoor scenes were displayed to each subject and they were asked to move their head to the left and to the right until they experienced pain.
The devices measured their head movements with gyroscopes, sometimes the headset’s point of view accurately reflected the neck motion of the subject but other times it was exaggerated or lessened therefore not accurately corresponding to how far their heads were turned in reality. In some cases the angle indicated that their heads were turned far less than they actually were and in others that their heads were rotated much further.
We can be tricked into when we feel pain
The results displayed that the brain’s visual feedback plays an important role in signalling when the subject’s felt pain. When their neck rotation was understated visually, the subjects felt less pain; allowing them to turn their heads up to 6% further than they normally would normally be able to do so without feeling pain. When their neck rotation was overstated visually, their range of motion without pain shrank by 7%.
These devices are showing us that external cues are important in determining the levels of pain that we feel, and the physical points at which we feel them. These non-danger signalling cues could provide scientists with increasingly novel targets for pain therapy.