Virtual Reality Pain Research

Over a decade of research and clinical studies have shown that immersive virtual reality can significantly reduce pain, relieve stress, and build resilience. The following is an overview of this VR pain control research with children and adults.  The founders of DeepStream VR, Ari Hollander and Howard Rose, have been a part of these pioneering research teams that have established the field of VR pain control and helped build the first VR pain relief applications.

VR Changes the Perception of Pain in the Brain

Functional MRI scans show what happens in the brain when we use VR to control pain. These fMRI images reveal significant reduction in pain related brain activity while using VR. Participants using VR also reported feeling less pain during the study, which corroborates the fMRI results.

Research continues into the mechanisms behind VR pain control, and the specific components of VR that contribute to this analgesic effect. Some crucial elements include a wide field-of-view (above 60 degrees), visual flow, and engaging interaction.

Virtual Reality VS Opioids

Current treatments for pain mainly involve narcotics, like hydromorphone and morphine, for moderate to severe and chronic pain. Narcotics are notorious for their diminishing effectiveness over repeated use which can lead to dosage escalation and dependence. There is a global epidemic of misuse of pain medication and in many cases the remedy has become worse than the symptom.

Hoffman et al. (2007) compared the VR game, SnowWorld, to opioid pain relievers. Each person in the study (n=9) experienced heat pain in 4 conditions: no treatment control, opioids only, VR only, opioids with VR. The researchers asked the participants questions to describe their experience, and also took scans of their brains during the study.

The charts below show how the average (mean) responses on three questions:
– What was the worst pain intensity?
– How much time did you spend thinking about the pain?
– How much fun did you have?

Response scale ranged from none (zero) to extremely high (ten).

Worst Pain Intensity
Time Thinking About Pain
How Much Fun

Virtual Reality for Chronic Pain

Dr. Diane Gromala’s research team is pioneering VR therapy alternatives to narcotics for moderate to severe and chronic pain. DeepStream VR is collaborating with Dr. Gromala’s to build virtual worlds that combine the immersion of VR with biofeedback and mindfulness techniques.  These and other studies are beginning to show that virtual reality can increase resilience, thereby providing an effective combination or alternative to narcotic pain medication.

Diane Gromala is an expert in art, design and computer science. Dr. Gromala developed virtual reality (VR) for phobias, anxiety, Parkinson’s and for children who were undergoing chemotherapy. Her VR creations are in use at over 20 hospitals worldwide.   Video time: 16 minutes