Virtual reality (VR) is not just a technology for entertainment and gaming. It can also be used as a powerful tool for pain management, by altering the perception of the body and the brain. Researchers at the University of South Australia are exploring how VR can help people with chronic and persistent pain, by making them feel like superheroes.
Chronic pain is a condition that affects one in five Australians, and it can have a significant impact on their quality of life, physical and mental health, and social and economic wellbeing. While there are various strategies to manage chronic pain, such as medication, exercise, and psychological therapy, there is no cure and more innovations are needed.
Dr Daniel Harvie, a researcher and 2023 SA Young Tall Poppy of Science, says that VR can be used to re-train the nervous system and change the way people experience pain. He explains that pain is usually triggered by an injury, but in some people, it persists even after the body is healed. This means that the nervous system has become sensitised and overprotective, and it needs to be updated with new information.
Superhero therapy: swapping your body with the Incredible Hulk
One of the ways to update the nervous system is to use VR to create a sense of embodiment, which is the feeling of being in a body. By using VR headsets and motion sensors, people can see and control a virtual body that is different from their own. This can create a mismatch between what they see and what they feel, which can trigger an update of their brain-held representations of their body.
Dr Harvie and his team have developed a new VR intervention called ‘Superhero Therapy’, which engages patients in VR where they swap their body with that of a superhero, such as the Incredible Hulk. The idea is to convince the brain and nervous system that the body is invincible, healed, and no longer in pain.
“In doing so, a person with chronic pain, who feels weak and vulnerable, can literally see, and experience themselves as a super strong, muscular character,” Dr Harvie says. “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.”
Initial results show promising effects
The research is still ongoing, but the initial results show that when people enter a world of digital reality, their mind is immediately taken off their symptoms and their pain tends to drop. And just like practicing any skill, the more you do it, the better you become.
Dr Harvie says that VR 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. He believes that it won’t be too long before we see VR in physiotherapy and occupational therapy clinics as a core part of every management of people with pain.
He also hopes that his research will inspire more people to explore the potential of VR for health and wellbeing. “We are at a historical juncture in the way pain is managed,” he says. “VR offers a new frontier for innovation and discovery.”