Doctors often prescribe opioids for the treatment of acute and chronic pain. These have a high potential for misuse, and use in the long term would lead to dependence. Many studies have shown that mindful breathing has analgesic, or pain-relieving, effects. Health experts suggest that conscious breathing could be a safer alternative to pharmacological methods for relieving pain. In mindful breathing, people have to focus their attention on their own internal experience, precisely the sensation of inhaling and exhaling. It can be difficult for beginners because it involves focusing on an inner sense for more extended periods. VR-guided breathing can help in this.
VR allows people to interact with a computer-generated, three-dimensional, immersive environment. Research has shown that the VR system’s sensory environment can help reduce pain by engaging with an immersive or realistic external stimulus. But scientists do not fully understand the mechanism by which VR modulates brain activity to reduce pain perception.
The perception of pain is modulated by the amount of attention directed at the painful experience. Visual and auditory attention are required to engage with VR., and this distraction reduces the attention directed toward pain. The perceived levels of pain are reduced. Exposure to VR may reduce pain even when individuals are not actively engaging with it. VR helps to alleviate pain by a mechanism other than the distraction of attention.
In a recent study, brain imaging was used to investigate the mechanisms underlying the analgesic effects of VR. The brain activation patterns in healthy individuals were compared by the researchers practicing traditional mindful breathing with those who used VR-aided mindful breathing. After practicing mindful breathing for 1-week, the researchers found that using either of the techniques had a higher threshold for pain.
Different brain activation patterns were produced by the two breathing techniques during the breathing exercise and when immediately after the breathing exercise, the participant was subjected to a painful stimulus. In standard breathing techniques, pain is reduced by focusing the mind on internal sensations. In VR-guided breathing, pain is relieved by focusing the user’s attention on external sensations.
The research involved 40 healthy adults who practiced either traditional or VR-aided mindful breathing for seven days. The VR mindful breathing group and the conventional mindful breathing group performed their respective breathing technique in the lab on the 1st and 7th days. During the remaining five days, they also practiced these breathing routines at home.
The headset in the VR breathing technique displayed a 3D image of virtual lungs that moved in synchrony with the participants’ breathing patterns. Headphones were worn by the participants that played breathing sounds that were also synchronized with their breaths. In the VR group, the participants did not have access to the VR headset at home. They were asked by the researchers to recreate the VR experience by visualizing and imagining their lungs as they practiced the breathing routine.
In the lab, after the completion of the breathing activity on the 1st and 7th days, a test was administered to measure the participants’ pain threshold. During the breathing exercise and the pain threshold test, the brain activity of the participants was recorded. Using an imaging technique, the changes in brain activity levels were tracked. This technique is known as functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS).
To continuously track blood flow changes in brain regions, fNIRS uses low levels of harmless nonionizing light. The principle is that when the brain region is activated, there is an increase in blood flow during a task. After one week of practice, the researchers found that both traditional and VR-aided mindful breathing increased the participants’ pain thresholds.