Seeing is believing: neck pain reduced by virtual reality

You might think that pain is a purely physical sensation, occurring when a change in your tissues triggers pain neurons. But research published this week in Psychological Science shows that this isn’t the whole story. Patients with chronic neck pain could rotate their necks further without pain if the visual image they saw made it look like they were only turning their heads slightly.

The researchers tested 24 patients with chronic neck pain who wore virtual reality headsets depicting an indoor or outdoor scene. As the participants rotated their necks, the virtual reality image they were watching could either accurately represent their head movement or alter it, to suggest they were moving their neck more or less than they were. When the virtual reality they saw understated their movement (showing less rotation than they were physically doing), participants were able to turn their heads 6% further without reporting pain. Conversely, when the image overstated the rotation, their pain-free movement range shrank by 7%.

This suggests that visual images contribute to a pain response, not just physical signals from damaged tissue. As one of the researchers, Professor G. Lorimer Moseley from the University of South Australia, said, ”Our findings show that the brain does not need danger messages coming from the tissues of the body in order to generate pain in that body part — sensible and reliable cues that predict impending pain are enough”. It is useful to be able to predict future pain so you stop the movement that is causing it, and prevent further damage.

Previous research has also shown that emotional, cognitive and other sensory cues can alter how intensely we feel pain. This study is different in showing that cues other than tissue damage can alter the threshold at which pain occurs, not just the level of pain. The intensity of pain here was the same whether the virtual images accurately represented reality or not.

Beyond showing how our pain response is controlled, this study could give clues for how to treat chronic pain. For example, using virtual reality patients could be made to feel like they were making large movements to get them used to moving more, without causing real-world pain. As the authors comment, “If cues signaling danger amplify or indeed trigger pain, then these cues present a novel target for therapy”.



Harvie, D.S., Broecker, M., Smith, R.T., Meulders, A., Madden, V.J. and Moseley, G.L., 2015. Bogus Visual Feedback Alters Onset of Movement-Evoked Pain in People With Neck Pain. Psychological Science, doi: 10.1177/0956797614563339 .

Image credit: flickr/BagoGames

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