Pain Distraction: Treadmill Walking

Virtual reality (VR) has been used to manage pain and distress associated with a wide variety of known painful medical procedures. Although the exact mechanisms remain unclear, VR is generally hypothesized to be capable of reducing pain by means of distraction. Conscious attention is required to process pain signals and VR can provide an engaging environment, which draws a lot of attentional resources, leaving less attention available to process these pain signals.

In this project we are looking into the utility of VR as a pain reduction technique in patients with intermittent claudication; a cramping pain or discomfort in the legs which occurs during exercise and is relieved with rest. Most of the times it is a symptom of peripheral artery disease, in which the arteries that supply blood to the limbs are obstructed due to atherosclerosis. Up till now, most research about pain and VR focused solely on pain outside control of the patient (e.g., pain experienced during wound care). What is special about claudication pain is that it is produced 'actively' by walking.

Current guidelines appoint supervised exercise therapy, consisting of treadmill exercise to moderate leg pain, as primary treatment for patients with IC. Research shows that this generally decreases patients' functional impairment, which is usually quantified as the distance that they can walk before pain forces them to stop. However, motivating patients for such a painful exercise program forms a barrier to widespread prescription of supervised exercise therapy.

In collaboration with Gamedia we created a 'VR forest' which was designed to distract patients with IC from the pain they experience during treadmill exercise. This may lead to greater exercise performance (i.e., greater walking distance), thereby potentially increasing therapy effectiveness. Aside from the effects of distraction we are also investigating the effects of manipulating the spatial characteristics of VR environments on exercise performance.

  • Virtual reality
  • Treadmill walking
  • Gamification
  • Intermittent claudication

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