Investigating psychological mechanisms that modulate pain, such as those that might be accessed by manipulation of context, is of great interest to researchers seeking to better understand and treat pain. The aim of this study was to better understand the interaction between pain sensitivity, and contexts with inherent emotional and social salience – by exploiting modern immersive virtual reality (VR) technology.
A within-subjects, randomised, double-blinded, repeated measures (RM) design was used. In total, 25 healthy participants were exposed to neutral, pleasant, threatening, socially positive and socially negative contexts, using an Oculus Rift DK2. Pressure pain thresholds (PPTs) were recorded in each context, as well as prior to and following the procedure. We also investigated whether trait anxiety and pain catastrophisation interacted with the relationship between the different contexts and pain.
Pressure pain sensitivity was not modulated by context ( p = 0.48). Anxiety and pain catastrophisation were not significantly associated with PPTs, nor did they interact with the relationship between context and PPTs.
Contrary to our hypothesis, socially and emotionally salient contexts did not influence pain thresholds. In light of other research, we suggest that pain outcomes might only be tenable to manipulation by contextual cues if they specifically manipulate the meaning of the pain-eliciting stimulus, rather than manipulate psychological state generally – as per the current study. Future research might exploit immersive VR technology to better explore the link between noxious stimuli and contexts that directly alter its threat value.