Watching immersive 360-degree videos of icy Arctic scenes helps relieve intense burning pain and could hold hope for treating chronic pain, a small study has found.

Scientists from Imperial College London have found that using virtual reality (VR) headsets could combat increased sensitivity to pain by immersing people in scenes of icebergs, frigid oceans, and sprawling icescapes.

In a small proof-of-concept study, published in Pain Reports, a team from Imperial used VR to reduce peoples’ scores of perceived ongoing pain as well their sensitivity to painful stimuli.

According to the researchers, the findings add to the growing evidence for the potential of VR technology to help patients with chronic pain.

Beyond the distracting effect, they think immersing patients in VR may actually trigger the body’s own built-in pain-fighting systems.

Sam Hughes, PhD, from the MSk Lab at Imperial and first author on the paper, said: “One of the key features of chronic pain is you get increased sensitivity to painful stimuli. This means patients’ nerves are constantly ‘firing’ and telling their brain they are in a heightened state of pain. Our work suggests that VR may be interfering with processes in the brain, brainstem, and spinal cord, which are known to be key parts of our inbuilt pain-fighting systems and are instrumental in regulating the spread of increased sensitivity to pain.”

VR has been trialed as a method to distract patients from the pain, with some success in minor dental procedures requiring local anesthetic. But the latest study looked to see if it could work in a simulated model of chronic pain.

In the trial, 15 healthy volunteers were given a topical cream on the skin of their leg containing capsaicin—the fiery compound in chilis that makes your mouth burn. The capsaicin sensitized the skin, making the area more sensitive to painful stimuli (a very small electric shock) and mimicking the heightened sensitivity of people with chronic pain, such as lower back pain, arthritis, or nerve pain.

Participants were then asked to rate the pain caused by the capsaicin cream on a scale of 0-100 (from ‘no sensation’ to ‘worst pain imaginable’) while either watching a VR scene of arctic exploration through a headset or looking at a still image of an Arctic scene on a monitor.

They were also asked to say when a stimulus applied directly to the sensitized skin area is perceived as painful.

The team found that ongoing pain was reduced following VR immersion and that sensitivity to painful stimuli on the skin was also reduced. However, the same effect was not seen in people who looked at still images of the polar environment, showing immersion is the key factor.

They explain that while the initial findings are encouraging, the study is limited by the small number of healthy participants without chronic pain. Future randomized controlled trials with chronic pain patients could also help to confirm its potential benefit for patients.

However, the researchers believe VR could hold the potential to treat patients with chronic pain who often have deficient pain fighting systems. They suggest that using VR may provide an alternative therapy for some chronic pain conditions by improving activity in brain regions involved in these pain-relief systems.

The team now plans to investigate the pathways involved in the VR dampening effect, including whether a dosing regimen would work—such as 30 minutes, four times a day—and if the effects would be cumulative or remain temporary.

This article was adapted from information provided by Imperial College London.