The neurobiology of virtual reality pain attenuation

Cyberpsychol Behav. 2007 Aug;10(4):536-44. doi: 10.1089/cpb.2007.9993.


During the past decade, virtual reality (VR) has gained recognition as a means of attenuating pain during medical procedures. However, while investigators have examined the effects of virtual environments on level of distraction, subjective pain intensity, and brain activity, there have been only a handful of investigations into the neurobiological mechanisms associated with VR's efficacy. In an effort to explain how VR may alter pain perception and produce analgesia, as well as to guide the development of novel and improved VR pain treatments, this review aims to link the wealth of empirical data examining the neurobiology of pain to the growing field of VR. This review is separated into three main sections: (a) a brief overview of the current literature on the use of VR for the treatment of pain; (b) a review of the basic neurobiology of how pain is detected, processed, and controlled by the brain; and (c) an exploration into how current VR pain treatments may impact the pain system to produce analgesia. In addition, the future of VR for pain treatment is discussed, including how current treatments might be improved and novel ways to use VR to treat pain might be developed. Speculation on future VR interventions is based on our current understanding of how the brain processes pain and how VR appears to alter this process and produce analgesia.

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Pain Management*
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • User-Computer Interface*