G Lorimer Moseley, Daniel Harvie, and their colleagues from the University of South Australia trialled the headset with 24 physiotherapy patients. All of them had chronic neck pain, but for different reasons, from traumatic injury to strain to scoliosis. They’d had the problem for an average of eleven years.
The researchers asked them to sit in a chair while wearing the headset. They had a seatbelt to make sure their chest didn’t move, and headphones to block out atmospheric noise. They were also fitted with gyroscopes to keep track of their head movements.
The participants were then shown different virtual indoor and outdoor scenes and each time asked to turn their head until they felt pain. But the researchers weren’t just recording the results. For some scenes they were manipulating the virtual scenes so it looked like the participants were turning their head less or more than it appeared.
What they discovered was that the pain we experience can change depending on the visual feedback we’re getting. When the display understated the amount the head was being turned, participants could move their head 6% further without pain. However, when it was overstated, the range of pain was reduced by an average of 7%.
Previous experiments have shown that external factors can affect our perception of pain, but this is the first time that researchers have been able to change the point at which people experience pain. (And as much as Oculus might like to think otherwise, the result could probably be replicated with other VR headsets.)
Either way, it makes an exciting basis for research into more effective (and non-invasive) treatments for not only neck pain, but all kinds of chronic disorders.