Out of body illusion can tackle chronic pain

Published: 10 August 2016 at 22:00

A lady seated while taking part in an experiment

Novel experiment reduces pain intensity by 37% amongst long-term sufferers

New research shows that inducing a virtual “out of body experience” can significantly reduce the intensity of chronic pain.

The study, which was carried out at Anglia Ruskin University by psychologist James Pamment and neuroscientist Dr Jane Aspell, is published today by the European Journal of Pain.

Participants suffering from a range of long-term chronic pain conditions, including sciatica, osteoarthritis, irritable bowel syndrome and back pain, took part in an experiment which created a full body illusion, causing them to disassociate themselves from their bodies.

The participants viewed their own ‘virtual’ bodies for two minutes through virtual reality goggles, while their backs were stroked.  The video images were fed to the goggles by a camera placed 1.5m behind them. 

Afterwards, illusion strength and pain intensity were measured, and the scientists found that when the illusions were experienced by patients with chronic pain, their pain intensity was reduced by an average of 37% (synchronous conditions). 

Chronic pain (pain that persists for at least three months) is surprisingly common.  A recent large-scale survey found that 19% of adults reported suffering from chronic pain and the psychologists believe their research demonstrates that full body illusions could potentially be used to aid pain management.

Dr Jane Aspell, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, said: 

“Full body illusions induce a feeling of ownership for a virtual body and a feeling that one’s self is located outside of one’s own body.  

“We wanted to test whether this illusion would reduce the intensity of chronic pain in participants, as similar body illusions have previously been shown to have a range of effects on the body’s physiology.”

James Pamment, who devised the experiment for his undergraduate final-year project at Anglia Ruskin, added: 

“The reduction in pain experienced by our participants was significant, with pain intensity reducing by an average of 37% when the video feed seen by the participants was live, compared to recorded.  This reduction arguably constitutes a clinically useful analgesic effect.  

“The potential real-world applications for full body illusions aiding the management of chronic pain conditions will depend, in part, on how long lasting these effects are, and further research is needed.”

Watch the video: Chronic pain and out-of-body illusions