Wimbledon Clinics

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Could out-of-body illusions help combat chronic pain?

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A pioneering new experiment has suggested that instigating an ‘out-of-body experience´ could help relieve the intensity of chronic pain in some patients.

The study, published earlier this month in the European Journal of Pain, was led by psychologist James Pamment and neuroscientist Dr Jane Aspell, from the Anglia Ruskin University. Its findings could have significant implications for sufferers of back pain, sciatica and osteoarthritis.

Chronic pain is becoming a bigger problem in today´s society, with a largely sedentary working and life style putting more and more adults at risk of problems.

According to the report itself, the aim of the study was to see whether patients´ experience of chronic pain “could be reduced by full body illusions (FBIs) that cause participants to dissociate from their own body.”

This theory was based on previous evidence suggesting that the experience of pain relies on “multisensory integration.”

Participants with a range of long-term chronic pain conditions were selected, including back pain, irritable bowel syndrome, oseoathritis and sciatica.

They were asked to watch their own ‘virtual´ bodies through virtual reality goggles for a period of two minutes, while their backs were stroked. Cameras placed 1.5m behind them and synced to the goggles meant that they could see what was happening.

When the two minutes were up, the researchers measured the patients´ strength and pain intensity. Interestingly, it was found that pain intensity dropped by an average of 37% for patients with chronic pain who viewed the illusion live, as opposed to a recording.

The report concluded that the findings support earlier theories that “high-level multisensory body representations can interact with homeostatic regulation and pain perception.”

Commenting on the findings, James Pamment – who formulated the study for his final-year project at the university – noted that the 37% reduction “arguably constitutes a clinically useful analgesic effect.”

However, he did stress that the scope for “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,” adding that “further research is needed.”