Background and aims The present study was designed to evaluate the relative efficacy of two video game display modalities - virtual reality (VR) assisted video game distraction, in which the game is presented via a VR head-mounted display (HMD) helmet, versus standard video game distraction, in which the game is projected on a television - and to determine whether environmental context (quiet versus noisy) moderates the relative efficacy of the two display modalities in reducing cold pressor pain in healthy college students. Methods Undergraduate students (n=164) were stratified by sex and self-reported video game skill and were randomly assigned to a quiet or a noisy environment. Participants then underwent three cold pressor trials consisting of one baseline followed by two distraction trials differing in display modality (i.e. VR-assisted or standard distraction) in counter-balanced order. Results Participants experienced improvement in pain tolerance from baseline to distraction in both display modality conditions (p<0.001, partial η2=0.41), and there was a trend toward greater improvement in pain tolerance from baseline to distraction when using the VR HMD helmet than during standard video game distraction (p=0.057, partial η2=0.02). Participants rated pain as more intense when experienced with concurrent experimental background noise (p=0.047, partial η2=0.02). Pain tolerance was not influenced by the presence or absence of background noise, and there was not a significant interaction between display modality and noise condition. Though exploratory sex analyses demonstrated a significant three-way interaction between noise condition, sex, and display modality on pain intensity (p=0.040, partial η2=0.040), follow-up post-hoc analyses conducted for males and females separately did not reveal significant differences in pain intensity based on the interaction between noise condition and display modality. Conclusions As expected, video game distraction both with and without an HMD helmet increased pain tolerance; however, the two display modalities only marginally differed in efficacy within the population under study. The effect of auditory background noise on pain was mixed; while pain tolerance did not vary as a function of the presence or absence of background noise, the addition of noise increased pain intensity ratings. The interaction between participant sex, noise condition, and distraction modality on pain intensity trended toward significance but would require replication in future research. Implications Results suggest that video game distraction via HMD helmet may be superior to standard video game distraction for increasing pain tolerance, though further research is required to replicate the trending findings observed in this study. Though it does not appear that background noise significantly impacted the relative efficacy of the two different video game display modalities, the presence of noise does appear to alter the pain response through amplified pain intensity ratings. Further research utilizing more sophisticated VR technology and clinically relevant background auditory stimuli is necessary in order to better understand the impact of these findings in real-world settings and to test the clinical utility of VR technology for pain management relative to standard video game distraction.
Keywords: distraction; environmental noise; non-pharmacological analgesia; pain management; virtual reality.