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Pain Management Health Center

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Expert Q&A: Video Games May Ease Pain

An interview with Jeffrey I. Gold, PhD.

How does VR work to relieve pain?

That's what we’re trying to figure out.

I have an NIH-funded study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at what mechanisms in the brain can explain the effects of VR on experimental pain.

So far, we've studied five healthy adults. We give them painful stimuli in the form of a warm burst of pain delivered to the arm. Then we image the brain while the participant is and isn't playing a VR racing game.

Early results suggest VR produces an endogenous opiate-like response in brain regions known to be involved with pain. There seems to be a release of endorphin "feel-good" chemicals in the brain.

Is this different than what you would expect with normal video games?

We think that normal video games may help to slightly relieve pain by distracting the patient -- having you focus attention on one thing so that you are not paying as much attention to others.

I think VR is that, but because it is a gaming environment and people are cruising and engaged and having a good time, something is also going on biochemically.

VR actually seems to decrease pain signaling in areas of the brain associated with pain.

What's next?

A lot.

There are other studies under way in children and adults with acute pain, but so far we haven’t looked at VR and chronic pain.

And we want to take blood samples and measure chemicals associated with pain to gain more insight into how VR works.

We also want to see how VR works in conjunction with biofeedback and hypnosis.

Eventually, we see VR as a type of complementary medicine. We don't think it can completely replace pain medication but we hope it can decrease the need for it.

One problem is that head-mounted displays cost from $500 up to $30,000 and so far, gaming companies haven't shown much interest.

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