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  • Writer's pictureEngage PT, OT, SLP Therapy and Wellness

Virtual Reality for Pain Management

Plank exercise with VR set
Virtual reality can be used with exercse

What is Virtual Reality (VR)?

Virtual Reality (VR) is a system that allows its users to experience a fully immersive virtual world using a head mounted display. Originally designed for entertainment, VR is now used for pain management and physical rehabilitation. It has even been used to reduce pain during procedures such as wound care, chemotherapy, and dental procedures.

How does Virtual Reality help with pain?

There are two main theories on how VR helps with pain:

1. The Gate Control Theory (proposed by Melzack and Wall) suggests that because humans need to attend to pain in order to experience it, VR can distract us from pain with visual, auditory, and tactile inputs.

2. Researchers (Gold et al) propose that because VR interacts with pathways that involve attention, emotion, memory and other senses it produces a pain relieving effect (analgesia).

VR analgesia is shown in functional MRI data as seen by decreased brain activities in regions commonly associated with pain. When compared to opioids, VR reduces the activities in the same regions as opioids do (the insula and the thalamus) but not other regions of the pain circuit. Cognitive tasks have also been shown to reduce brain activities in the other pain circuits during experimental pain stimulation.

Can VR address chronic pain?

More studies are needed to confirm that VR can improve chronic pain. Thus far, there have been small studies with people who live with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, chronic neck pain, and post-burn pain in which patient (aging from 9 to 74 years old) have shown improved range of motion and reduced pain intensity levels in patients.

Take aways

Studies using VR during medical procedures consistently show positive effects on the experience of pain including lower ratings of pain, anxiety, unpleasantness, decreased time spent thinking about pain and perceived time spent in the procedure. VR has been shown to improve pain levels in people with acute pain and even some with chronic pain.

If you have been experiencing pain for a long period of time, therapy at Engage may help you reduce your pain levels and improve your ability to do the things you want to do. Our physical and occupational therapists have experience working with individuals with pain and implementing graded motor imagery techniques. Please contact our office at 315-810-2423 or with any questions about how we may be able to help you!


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