Can VR help reduce pain?

Even though other studies has to be made in order to get more concrete results, many experts claim that VR can have therapeutic effects. Virtual Reality might  be useful in several treatments for phobias, attention deficit troubles and decrease pain. There are several non-drug treatments in order to reduce pain such as hypnosis. In a study published in 2014 (Manipulating presence influences the magnitude of virtual reality analgesia), researchers from the Washington University pointed out that VR is effective when reducing pain. 


In order to get sufficient data and realize a study on the correlation between immersive technologies and painkilling therapy, experts in Men-to-machine interfaces of the Washington University set up a standardized study. The research project was focused on pain stimuli reduction for serious burn victims with the development of a VR application called SnowWorld.

SnowWorld takes place in an icy decor. The users had to throw snowballs on snowmen, penguins, mammoths and even flying fishes. The study being made for people with serious burn injuries, SnowWorld was actually created in a ice environment in order to avoid possible traumas with extreme heat.

Two kind of technologies

High quality VR: 

This system was based on a complete immersion with sounds and head tracking (looking around you at 360°). The research team (by the time the study was made) used high quality materials: Dell workstation and a Kaiser XL-50 helmet.

Low VR quality: 

The app used in this system was closed to SnowWorld. However, the study group could not throw snowballs, there was no sound and the head tracking was removed. The technologies were of a lesser quality as well.


The more the technologies and the experience were in a good quality, the more the pain reduction was important. The study showed that, the sense of presence in VR can help patients distract their attention from the pain and reduce it drastically.

Comparison to other systems: video games

Video games are also a means to decrease pain. A study, related to the previous one we were talking about, showed that VR has much stronger potential when it comes to be used in reducing pain. Since VR allows a complete immersion in a “virtual reality”, it seems that the sense of presence is an important factor in pain removal cures.

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Such painkiller effects in VR can be explained by the entreaties of the brain circuits that create pain. Those circuits are the same for the attention, emotions and sensorial system. Indeed, when a patient plays SnowWorld in VR, many visual stimuli draw his/her attention elsewhere. The virtual environment generates strong emotions and motor actions (throwing snowballs for example) that become an inhibitor on pain sensations. Virtual Reality help patients overcome pain.

Sources :
  • Gromala, D., Tong, X., Shaw, C., Amin, A., Ulas, S., & Ramsay, G. (2016, February 14). Mobius Floe: an Immersive Virtual Reality Game for Pain Distraction [Text]. Retrieved November 21, 2018, from
  • Hoffman, H. G., Sharar, S. R., Coda, B., Everett, J. J., Ciol, M., Richards, T., & Patterson, D. R. (2004). Manipulating presence influences the magnitude of virtual reality analgesia. Pain111(1), 162–168.
  • Jones, T., Moore, T., & Choo, J. (2016). The Impact of Virtual Reality on Chronic Pain. PLOS ONE11(12), e0167523.
  • Malloy, K. M., & Milling, L. S. (2010). The effectiveness of virtual reality distraction for pain reduction: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology Review30(8), 1011–1018.