Someday, virtual reality technology may help reduce the pain a person feels during medical procedures. Researchers found that volunteers who were immersed in a computer-generated world reported feeling less pain during an uncomfortable procedure than when they experienced the procedure without virtual reality technology. A dose of virtual reality also reduced activity in the brain's pain centers.
In the study, eight men experienced short bursts of painful but tolerable heat to the foot while wearing virtual reality helmets that created a computer-generated environment. During the test, researchers took brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure pain-related brain activity.
Then the men experienced the same procedure without benefit of virtual reality. Not only did they report feeling more pain, but their fMRI readings also showed more pain-related activity.
Researchers say their study offers more evidence that virtual reality can function as an analgesic by distracting the brain from processing the body's pain signals. Study coauthor Dr. Hunter G. Hoffman, director of the Virtual Reality Analgesia Research Center at the University of Washington in Seattle, is now working with other researchers to study using virtual reality to treat phobias and posttraumatic stress disorder.