Virtual Reality Smashing Through Chronic Pain

With as many as one in five Australians experiencing chronic pain, researchers are constantly searching for new and innovative ways to manage symptoms. The University of South Australia is using VR (virtual reality) to allow chronic pain sufferers to ‘swap’ their body with that of a superhero in a bid to persuade their brain that their body is invincible.

How can VR manage chronic pain?

Leading researcher, Dr Daniel Harvie believes that by combining brain science with virtual reality, the nervous system can be convinced that the body is healed and no longer experiencing pain. Dr Harvie, the 2023 South Australian Young Tall Poppy, says;

“Pain is usually triggered by an injury, but in some people, it hangs around even after the body is healed. Now, instead of just treating the site of pain in your body, we know that we may also need to re-train the nervous system.”

Dubbed ‘Superhero Therapy’, chronic pain patients can ‘swap’ their body for a superhero, such as The Incredible Hulk, whilst wearing a VR headset. The participants, who normally feel weak and debilitated by their pain are experiencing a drop in symptoms when they enter the digital world and experience it in a seemingly strong and agile body.

“The visual synchronisation of virtual and real bodies triggers an update of the users’ brain-held representations: from those aligned with injury (which are pain promoting) to those consistent with a resilient body (which are pain suppressing). Remarkably, people feel immediately stronger, agile, and more resilient.”, says Dr Harvie.

Research is ongoing, but initial results show that when people enter the VR world, their mind is immediately taken off their symptoms and their pain tends to drop.

“We are at a historical juncture in the way pain is managed,” Dr Harvie says.

“Virtual reality is an amazing, brain-targeting, perception-altering tool that can be used to train the nervous system and address some of the challenges for people with chronic pain.

I really think it won’t be too long before we see VR in physio and occupational therapy clinics as a core part of every management of people with pain.”

virtual reality for chronic pain

Can Virtual Reality be used for other health conditions?

Across the globe, VR is being trialled for a variety of purposes including anxiety, Parkinson’s, pain management for burns, patients undergoing rehabilitation, and even to assist with eating disorders. In a world where prescription medication addiction is a real problem, the use of technology such as VR could be a real breakthrough.

The South Australian study is not the first when it comes to pain management. There have been really promising results from trials conducted in the US, where patients underwent medical procedures with either VR or traditional pain management methods and those who used the VR option had a positive experience.

Check out the video below to see more about Dr Harvie’s study.

The possibilities of how virtual reality can be used are endless. We’re looking forward to seeing how this technology might be able to help people recover from various health conditions and improve their quality of life.

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