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Are Cognitive Load and Focus of Attention Differentially Involved in Pain Management: An Experimental Study Using a Cold Pressor Test and Virtual Reality

Authors Dumoulin S, Bouchard S, Loranger C, Quintana P, Gougeon V, Lavoie KL

Received 20 November 2019

Accepted for publication 14 July 2020

Published 4 September 2020 Volume 2020:13 Pages 2213—2222

DOI https://doi.org/10.2147/JPR.S238766

Checked for plagiarism Yes

Review by Single anonymous peer review

Peer reviewer comments 2

Editor who approved publication: Dr E Alfonso Romero-Sandoval


Stéphanie Dumoulin,1 Stéphane Bouchard,2– 4 Claudie Loranger,2,4 Pamela Quintana,2 Véronique Gougeon,5 Kim L Lavoie1,6

1Department of Psychology, Université du Québec à Montréal, Montréal, QC, Canada; 2Cyberpsychology Lab, Université du Québec en Outaouais, Gatineau, QC, Canada; 3School of Psychology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada; 4Research Center, Centre Intégré de Santé et de Services Sociaux de l’Outaouais, Gatineau, QC, Canada; 5Department of Psychology, Université de Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke, QC, Canada; 6Montreal Behavioral Medicine Center, Research Center, CIUSSS-NIM Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montréal, Montréal, QC, Canada

Correspondence: Stéphane Bouchard
Cyberpsychology Lab, Université du Québec en Outaouais, C.P. 1250, Succ. Hull, 283 Boul. Alexandre-Taché, 2 e Étage, Local C-2500, Gatineau, Quebec J8X 3X7, Canada
Tel +1-819-595-3900 #2360
Fax +1 819-595-2250
Email stephane.bouchard@uqo.ca

Objective: The aim of this study is to assess whether distraction (lack of attentional focus) and attention (cognitive load) are differentially involved in the analgesic effect of virtual reality (VR) immersions during a cold pressor test (CPT).
Methods: Thirty-one participants were randomly assigned to four experimental conditions (high and low cognitive load, attention with or without a reminder of the pain stimuli) and performed three CPTs. Pain was assessed based on the duration of the CPT (pain tolerance), a visual analog rating scale of perceived pain intensity during the CPT and the subjective pain scale of the Short form McGill Pain Questionnaire (SF-MPQ).
Results: The statistical analyses revealed that VR immersions were associated with less pain compared to the baseline (all p < 0.001), but for the experimental manipulations, only the conditions where there was an increase in cognitive load (ie, from low cognitive load at Immersion 1 to high cognitive load at Immersion 2) were effective for increasing pain tolerance (significant Time X Conditions interaction). The interactions were not significant for pain intensity assessed with the VAS or the SF-MPQ.
Conclusion: The results suggest that increases in cognitive load play an important role in the analgesic effect of VR immersion, although the combination of attentional focus and cognitive load may be important. Suggestions are given for designing a replication study.

Keywords: virtual reality, pain, attention, cognitive load, distraction, cold pressor test, CPT

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