Research has found that virtual reality can help people resist pain for longer periods of time, and even more so when you add sound. Using an Oculus developer headset, researchers from York St. John University in the U.K. had a group hold their hands in ice water and time how long they could last.
While dipping one hand into ice water, the subjects played a racing game with the sound turned on. Subjects lasted an average of 79 seconds before pulling their hand out.
Next, they did the same test except without sound to go along with the immersive visuals. Researchers found that, on average, people were able to last 56 seconds in the ice water when viewing only VR images.
When the researchers did the ice water test without using VR equipment, then found that subjects were only able to last an average of 30 seconds. Of course, this does raise questions about, well, simply being distracted by anything when you are undergoing physical duress. What connections can be made between pain tolerance and normal gaming or maybe watching a movie? How does virtual reality (indeed, does virtual reality) stand apart?
Senior lecturer at York St. John Matt Coxon said that the tolerance for ice-water while being subjected to VR images with accompanying sound was much higher than they expected.
This opens the possibility of applying the technique to a wide range of practices other than just in hospitals and labs. “I think any scenario, really, where you’re undergoing a short amount of pain in a clinical setting could potentially benefit,” said Coxon.
Researchers have long speculated on the relationship between pain management and virtual reality. Sam Sharar of the University of Washington said that the amount of conscious attention that a patient has is fixed. Virtual reality can help divert that attention away from the pain by creating an immersive and pleasurable experience.
Previous work from HITLab at Washington has shown that virtual reality can offset pain, and it seems that this latest study is adding to this work.
The study is currently still in it’s early stages though.
Director of Integrative Pain Management at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York Houman Danesh says that, while distracting people with immersive imagery can theoretically help reduce pain, the studies are still limited and could vary with different people and different kinds of pain. To that end, more work will need to be done to fully understand the connections.