VR-Guided Breathing as a New Approach to Pain Relief
Mindful breathing was discovered as an effective non-pharmacological alternative that induces chronic pain relief through conscious efforts to focus the mind on internal sensations of the body. It was observed to decrease activity in the anterior prefrontal cortex of the brain, which participates in pain processing. A new study went a step further and explored the analgesic potential of mindful breathing in a VR setting compared to traditional mindful breathing practices.
Virtual reality (VR) is an immersive technology enabling interaction with a 3D computer-generated environment. So far, research has shown that the stimuli experienced in VR can turn the mind’s focus away from the pain, thus reducing its perceived intensity.
The participant sample included 40 healthy adults who applied only one of these techniques during one week. While both groups displayed reduced brain activity in the anterior prefrontal cortex, the VR-guided participants exhibited greater activation of other sensory processing regions of the brain. This coincided with the pain threshold increase, proving that VR breathing can stimulate pain relief even after the exercise.
In turn, participants practicing mindful breathing showed a higher level of coordination among sensory processing brain regions. The study also revealed that VR breathing and traditional mindful breathing differ in regulating this activity to increase pain tolerance, as the coordinated brain regions that predicted the pain threshold were not the same in both groups.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Alexandre DaSilva, stated that the VR setup, which helped immerse the participants and free them from external distractions, and the convenience of brain monitoring by fNIRS, represent two core strengths of the study.
However, VR participants spent only days 1 and 7 at the lab in the actual setup. They imitated the process at home during the in-between days, which could have reduced the effect, and the study didn’t include a control group of patients. Dr. DaSilva explained they are working to overcome these issues and aim to make the technology applicable to various pain disorders.
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