Study findings indicate that using virtual reality to misrepresent how far the neck is turned may change pain experiences in individuals living with chronic neck pain. The research appears in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

A news release from the association reports that past research suggests that factors, such as sensory, cognitive, and emotional cues, can exert a significant influence on if, when, and how pain is felt.

The current study results highlight the potential of altering of visual cues that inform the brain about the body to impact pain.

In the release, G. Lorimer Moseley, PT, PhD, researcher, University of South Australia, explains “Our findings show that the brain does not need danger messages coming from the tissues of the body in order to generate pain in that body part—sensable and reliable cues that predict impending pain are enough to produce the experience of pain…”

During the study, Moseley, co-author PhD candidate Daniel Harvie, and colleagues reportedly recruited 24 chronic neck pain patients from physiotherapy clinics. The participants had experienced the pain for an average of 11 years, resulting from issues such as posture, tension, repeated strain, trauma, and scoliosis.

The release notes that researchers asked participants to sit in a chair while wearing a virtual reality head-mounted display. The display showed a virtual indoor or outdoor scene while simultaneously recording participants’ head movements using gyroscopes. The participants wore a seatbelt, preventing them from moving their torso, and they also wore headphones that blocked out incidental noise, the release says.

For each scene presented, participants were asked to rotate their head either to the left or to the right, until they experienced pain. Participants were unaware that on some trials, the researchers manipulated the visual feedback provided in the virtual world, so that it did not accurately represent the degree to which the head was turned. The release states that in some cases, the scene indicated that participants were not turning their head as far as they actually were. In other cases, the feedback suggested to participants that they were turning their head farther than they were, overstating the degree of rotation.

The study’s results indicate visual feedback played a key role in determining when the participants reported feeling pain. When the display understated actual head rotation, participants had a broader range of pain-free motion. Specifically, the study says participants were able to turn their head about 6% farther than they normally would. However, when the display overstated head rotation, pain-free range of motion decreased by an average of 7%.

The researchers add that participants did not report any differences in pain intensity across the various conditions.

Moseley emphasizes the researchers’ surprise at how “robust and predictable this pattern of results was.”

In the release, the researchers also point out that their work, while experimental, may hold promise for the clinical treatment of pain.

Source(s): Science Daily, Association of Psychological Science