Virtually Painless

November 13, 2018

Want your players to feel like exercises are easier and less painful? A recent study at the University of Kent School of Engineering and Digital Arts in the U.K. suggests that virtual reality (VR) technology can accomplish just that. According to SportTechie, the study showed that donning a VR headset during challenging exercise could significantly lower a person’s perception of pain and fatigue.

To determine this, the study first asked 80 people to stand against a wall and perform a biceps curl through a full range of motion. Weight was increased to failure.

Next, participants were asked to sit in a chair. With their elbow supported, they were asked to hold their arm in a steady position for as long as possible while 20 percent of the maximum weight they achieved in the biceps curl was applied.

For this step, participants were divided into two groups. People in one group wore VR goggles that altered the look of the room and gave them a virtual arm to look at rather than their own. Those in the other group did not have the added VR component.

Researchers evaluated heart rate and time to exhaustion and also ranked each participant on pain intensity and perceived exhaustion. The VR group ranked significantly lower on both pain and effort, reporting 10 percent lower pain intensity one minute into the exercise.

A measure called “private body consciousness” or PBC was also used. PBC measures how tuned in a person is to their bodily sensations, and previous studies have found that individuals with high PBC experience more pain. Interestingly, the study found that the VR headsets reduced the perception of pain just as effectively in those with high PBC as they did in those with low PBC.

Maria Matsangidou, PhD, the head researcher on the study and a Graduate Teaching Assistant at Kent, says that VR may work to lessen perceived pain and effort because the brain, busy with the virtual experience, has less ability to notice discomfort. Matsangidou added that a pleasant virtual experience could also lessen anxiety. The fact that people were focused on a virtual arm and hand, rather than seeing their own arm, may have played a role, as well.

“One possibility is that VR reduces the amount of attention that is allocated to the sensory signal of pain,” Matsangidou said in a report on her research. “Our attentional resources are limited and to cope with the vast array of information that gets registered by our senses at any given point in time, we must select only the information that is relevant to our goal and ignore the rest. VR provides the senses of the user with a multitude of information while at the same time prevents access to his/her body. This allows the user to be immersed in the virtual environment and disconnect from the actual surroundings. As a result, attentional resources may be diverted away from the pain signal, reducing thus the experience of pain.”