Can virtual reality help relieve chronic pain?

Wolf was conducting his own experiment in Wool’s lab, applying painful stimuli to the hind legs of rats. The animals developed large “fields” of pain that could be easily activated months later with a light click or gentle warmth, even in places that were not directly touched. “I was altering the function of the nervous system, so that its properties changed,” Wolf says. He concluded, “Pain was not merely a measure of some peripheral disease.” “It could also be the result of abnormal amplification within the nervous system – this was the phenomenon of central sensitization.” Prior to this discovery, he says, “feeling pain was always a symptom that reflected a disease, and we now know that pain is often the result of a pathological condition in the nervous system itself.” Some diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, can show peripheral diseases and central sensitivity. Others, such as fibromyalgia, which is characterized by pain throughout the body, are only considered a problem with the central nervous system itself.

A better understanding of how chronic pain changes the central nervous system has emerged since Wolf’s experiment. A. Vanya Abkarian’s Pain Lab at Northwestern University found that when back pain persists, activity in the brain shifts from sensory and motor areas to areas associated with emotion, which include the amygdala and hippocampus. “It’s now part of inner psychology, and it’s a negative emotional cloud that takes hold,” Abkarian says.

The brain itself turns. Patients with chronic pain can show significant loss of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, the attention and decision-making area of ​​the brain that lies behind our foreheads, as well as in the thalamus, which transmits sensory signals; Both areas are important in treating pain. Neurotransmitters increase excitability, inhibitory ones decrease, while glial cells and other immune cells cause inflammation; Unbalanced nervous system amplifies and prolongs pain. The system goes into a state of failure, like an alarm that keeps ringing even when there’s no threat, even when the pain isn’t protective anymore. Instead, it generates more pain—and the longer it lasts, the deeper and more difficult it becomes to resolve.

There is a popular saying in neuroscience that when neurons fire together, they begin to bind to each other, which is an example of neuroplasticity in action. But if our brains are really plastic, then what forms there can be reshaped. Treatments that target the brain instead of painful back or knee pain — whether through psychology, medication, direct brain stimulation or virtual reality — could theoretically eliminate chronic pain.

In the 1990s, Hunter Hoffman, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Washington, began using virtual reality to provide relief for burn patients who had their bandages changed—a harrowing ordeal that is difficult to treat. “Nobody used virtual reality to reduce patients’ pain before us,” he says. at His VR program called SnowWorld, Patients who stumbled across the winter landscape, throwing snowballs at penguins, reported that their relief was similar to what they got from intravenous opioids. Brain scans confirmed these findings: Both VR and opioids significantly reduced neural activity in areas associated with pain.

Unlike most drugs and surgical procedures, VR has far fewer side effects — mostly nausea and motion sickness. Headphones now cost a fraction of what they did before, and the graphics have been significantly improved, resulting in more immersive experiences and fewer potential side effects. What’s more, says Hoffman, “all the major computer companies are pumping billions of dollars into virtual reality as a kind of internet”—what Mark Zuckerberg called the “embodied internet” when he announced last fall that Facebook was turning into a Meta. After several months, Microsoft revealed plans to acquire Activision Blizzard “To provide the building blocks for metaviruses,” the company said. Hoffman anticipates that the end effects of all this technology ferment are that virtual reality therapies, backed by private sector investment, will rapidly evolve into a standard treatment for pain.

On August 8, 2016, Robert Jester, a retired high school biology teacher in Greenport, New York, who had been working as a chimney sweep — to support his family and enjoy the great views — drove into a nearby neighborhood for a quick job. The ladder he took was quite short, but it looked like a simple sweep, so he decided to go ahead with the work anyway. He climbed to the top, slipped the ladder – and fell to the hard ground below. The pain in his back was so severe that he couldn’t make the rescuers bend over him; He could only see white light.