10% of adults in Britain suffer from some form of chronic pain, a medical condition which is poorly understood.
However research over the last decade suggest that the symptoms may be a s much psychological as physical. This has led to researchers exploring the use of virtual reality and immersive computer games.
Scientists at Anglia Ruskin University worked with 18 patients who all suffered from chronic pain for a variety of reasons, e.g. sciatica, migraine, back-ache.
They sat for 2 minutes wearing a head mounted display that showed a view of their back. White noise was played through earphones and they had hoods over their heads to block out distractions.
Then they were stroked with a stick either on their front or back.
The experimenters speculated that leaving your body behind, or diminishing the patient’s sense of ownership of their body, might help to reduce the intensity of pain as other experimenters have cured phantom limb pain using similar illusions.
Regardless of where they were stroked and regardless of their medical condition, the participants reported that the perceived pain was cut by an average of 37% while several said the pain had almost completely gone.
Opioid painkillers can relieve chronic pain by about 33% and other virtual reality games have cut it by 25%.
Theses obviously a promising field and although these illusions have not yet produced lasting relief it is fascinating to think that messing with your head in this way could help rewire the way your body interprets signals from the body which lead to the pain.