Virtual reality potential pain management strategy for nerve injuries

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Virtual reality may reduce types of pain typically seen in patients with nerve injuries and could boost the dysfunctional pain suppression system, according to new research published in The Journal of Pain.

The study, by researchers at the University of Plymouth focused on conditioned pain modulation (CPM), a pain inhibitory pathway in humans, and included 38 healthy volunteer subjects. Participants were 360-degree scenes of the Arctic in virtual reality, which were found to have an effect on CPM efficiency, while the 2D versions of the same scenes, or “sham VR,” reduced CPM efficiency.

The research also found the therapy reduced pain symptoms, such as prickling and pain following touch, that are often seen in patients with nerve injury, according to the study.

The study is preliminary, and further research is needed. The researchers said the next step is to conduct the study with people who experience chronic pain to see if it works for them.

“"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 Sam Hughes, BSc, PhD, lead author of the study and lecturer at the university of Plymouth, in a statement. “If it does work, it could be a really helpful in forming part of ongoing pain management by helping to target the dysfunctions in the brain that underpin chronic pain."