Virtual reality (VR) could revolutionise the treatment of musculoskeletal pain and solve the challenges of an ageing population - according to research by Dr Wendy Powell.

Dr Powell's research showed how a virtual reality environment can raise physical engagement and lower the perception of pain among those with musculoskeletal issues.

By introducing a rhythmic cue or changing the movement rate of an individual’s virtual environment, she saw people's responses speed up without a significant increase in pain. Her findings could have huge benefits for those with musculoskeletal conditions, helping them move more freely and improving their rehabilitation.

Pain is also factor in another area of Dr Powell’s work, but with a very different cause.

Her research also explored how VR could help amputees who still ‘feel’ their missing limb to manage pain without powerful drugs. The use of VR could, she said, help simulate ‘sensory feedback’ in amputated limbs - for example, when the brain signals to a static limb and the limb returns a signal to say it has moved.

Dr Powell said: 'In amputees, normal sensory feedback is not possible this can result in significant 'phantom' pain. 

For example, with a patient missing a lower arm, we can detect electrical signals going from the brain through the upper arm muscles. Using VR, we can turn them into an animation of the missing lower arm, simulating this feedback of movement.

Dr Wendy Powell, Reader in Virtual Reality

Dr Powell also believes VR could solve some of the challenges of an ageing society - when more older people live alone, away from family and friends, often with complex health and ongoing mobility issues.

She is developing an avatar-based service - Responsive InTeractive Advocate (RITA) - which can provide companionship and act on a patient's behalf. The system will draw on a secure database of users’ medical histories and personal information, such as habits and preferences.

Machine-learning software then expands the database, so that over time, RITA is capable of more sophisticated decision-making. RITA can then provide important support - from reminding patients to take their medication, to alerting medical services when their patient requires assistance.