Neck pain can be changed through altered visual feedback

February 19, 2015
Neck pain can be changed through altered visual feedback

Using virtual reality to misrepresent how far the neck is turned can actually change pain experiences in individuals who suffer from chronic neck pain, according to research published in Psychological Science.

It may seem like our experiences of stem from some objective, physiological source, but research has shown that many factors—including sensory, cognitive, and emotional cues—can have a significant influence on if, when, and how we feel pain. These new results indicate that altering the visual cues that inform the brain about the body can impact pain:

"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—sensable and reliable cues that predict impending pain are enough to produce the experience of pain," says researcher G. Lorimer Moseley of the University of South Australia. "These results suggest a new approach to developing treatments for pain that are based on separating the non-danger messages from the danger messages associated with a movement."

Moseley, co-author Daniel Harvie, and colleagues recruited 24 sufferers from physiotherapy clinics. The participants had experienced the pain for an average of 11 years, stemming from issues including posture, tension, repeated strain, trauma, and scoliosis.

The researchers had participants sit in a chair while wearing a head-mounted display (Oculus Rift). The display showed a virtual indoor or outdoor scene while simultaneously recording participants' head movements using gyroscopes. The participants wore a seatbelt that prevented them from moving their torso and they also wore headphones that blocked out incidental noise.

For each scene that was presented, the participants were asked to rotate their head, either to the left or to the right, until they experienced pain. What the participants didn't know was that on some trials the researchers were manipulating the visual feedback provided in the virtual world so that it didn't accurately represent the degree to which the head was turned. In some cases, the scene indicated that participants weren't turning their head as far as they actually were—it understated the degree of rotation. In other cases, the feedback indicated to participants that they were turning their head farther than they were, overstating the degree of rotation.

The results showed that the visual feedback played an important role in determining when the participants reported feeling pain.

When the display understated actual head rotation, participants had a broader range of pain-free motion; they were able to turn their head about 6% farther than they normally would. But when the display overstated head rotation, their pain-free range of motion shrank by an average of 7%.

Importantly, the didn't report any differences in the intensity of pain across the various conditions.

"We were surprised at how robust and predictable this pattern of results was," says Moseley. While previous research has indicated that external cues can influence the intensity of pain experiences, these results are novel in showing that external cues can also shift the physical point at which pain is experienced.

The researchers note that their work, though experimental in nature, could have significant implications for the clinical treatment of pain:

"If cues signaling danger amplify or indeed trigger pain, then these cues present a novel target for therapy," they conclude.

Explore further: Various strategies used by patients with HIV, chronic pain

More information: Psychological Science,

Related Stories

Various strategies used by patients with HIV, chronic pain

February 16, 2015

(HealthDay)—For individuals with HIV and chronic pain, various pain self-management strategies are employed, including physical activity, cognitive and spiritual strategies, and substance use, according to a study published ...

Can meditation decrease chronic pain?

October 23, 2013

A randomized controlled study published in the current issue of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics has investigated the role of a special form of meditation (mindfulness) in Chronic pain.

Smoking is a pain in the back

November 3, 2014

If you want to avoid chronic back pain, put out the cigarette. A new Northwestern Medicine® study has found that smokers are three times more likely than nonsmokers to develop chronic back pain, and dropping the habit may ...

Pre-op back pain, pain sensitivity predict outcomes

January 26, 2015

(HealthDay)—Preoperative back pain and individual pain sensitivity can predict postoperative pain following lumbar surgery, according to a study published in the December issue of Pain Medicine.

Pain words stand out more for those experiencing it

October 3, 2014

Ache, agony, distress and pain draw more attention than non-pain related words when it comes to people who suffer from chronic pain, a York University research using state-of-the-art eye-tracking technology has found.

Recommended for you

Gene discovered associated with Tau pathology

March 24, 2017

Investigators at Rush University Medical Center and the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston reported the discovery of a new gene that is associated with susceptibility to a common form of brain pathology called Tau that ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 19, 2015
So that's why if you watch a video of someone getting hit in the groin area it can send a shock through your body. Guess that's why these types of videos are a internet success.
not rated yet Feb 19, 2015
Fascinating; nothing short of amazing the mind is...

Researchers have also discovered that observing an activity stimulates the same neurons as actually performing the activity – these are referred to as "mirror neurons," see The mind's mirror. The discovery has been described (in 2005) as, "one of the 'single most important unpublicized stories of the decade.'"
not rated yet Feb 19, 2015
We think of pain as actually coming from an effected part but this is an entirely unsustainable delusion. Pain is generated in the brain in response to sensory cues.

Pain occurs due to certain cues including receptors at the cite of the damage or distress, anticipation, belief, other sensory cues and so on. Pain is Generated in the brain. It is not transmitted from the site of damage to the brain.

Beliefs associated with 'real' pain are based on magical non-scientific reasoning. The scientific approach says that pain response is generated in the brain upon the receipt of certain cues. There is no magic in the scientific model of pain.

The non-science minded individual becomes confused by the fact that pain is felt at the site of the damage and assume that the pain must be generated there instead of the brain.

The same is true of all sensory modalities including vision. What we 'see' is generated in the brain in response to visual or other cues.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.