Using virtual reality exercise to ease chronic pain

University of South Australia

Thursday, 01 February, 2024

Using virtual reality exercise to ease chronic pain

Not only does virtual reality make exercise feel easier, but it can ease chronic pain, according to new research from the University of South Australia.

The study used a stationary bike system with a head-mounted VR display. The system was wirelessly linked to a bespoke VR program that allowed for remote control of the stationary bike’s resistance, as well as the ability to record how hard participants were working (power output in watts). Participants rode the VR bike for up to 30 minutes but were able to end their session early for any reason. The researchers found that when people combine VR with cycling, their exercise enjoyment increases by 20% and they exercise for 15% longer.

Importantly, for patients with chronic pain, the technology distracts them from their condition, enabling them to engage in exercise and improve their recovery. There are 3.4 million people living with chronic pain in Australia. Globally, one in five people struggle with chronic pain.

In Australia, exercise guidelines recommend that people exercise for 30 minutes at least three to five times a week. Yet statistics show that only one in five people actually achieve this.

“Being active is essential for people to stay physically and mentally fit and healthy, but it’s also incredibly important for helping people both recover from injuries and manage chronic conditions such as arthritis,” said PhD candidate Erin MacIntyre.

“We also know that exercise can play an important role in rehabilitation, often reducing pain and disability.

“But the challenge is that there are often barriers to exercise — many find it boring, or say that it requires too much effort, or can be painful. So, we’ve been looking at ways to help overcome these barriers.

“In our study, we combined VR with cycling, so when a rider started exercising with the VR headset on, it made it seem like they were riding in a digital countryside.

“We found that the VR experience distracted cyclists from the exertion of exercise and made the exercise feel easier, which together contributed to increased enjoyment and engagement.”

Senior researcher Assoc Prof Tasha Stanton said the VR bike system offers a safe, valid and credible intervention for improving exercise engagement in clinical settings.

“This is a great first step for exploring VR in clinical settings. Our preliminary findings demonstrate the effectiveness of VR to improve both engagement and enjoyment of exercise, even in people who are experiencing chronic pain.

“While more research is needed, we are confident that VR will be more broadly adopted to support health and rehabilitation goals.”

Image credit: iStock.com/somboon kaeoboonsong

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