EMILY GRAY, amputee reintegration and motivational specialist, explains how virtual reality could assist in reducing phantom pain in amputees
Virtual Reality (VR) is a term that we have heard a lot lately, but the true extent of this tool use goes much further than just gaming. VR has been adopted by various industries such as National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for navigating robots on Mars. Courtrooms use VR for better 3D imagery to assist the jury in their judgments.
It’s also used for shopping, travel, automobile designs, educational facilities, museums and the health industry, which is already vastly benefiting from VR in many areas. The most innovative is the rehabilitation process for amputees experiencing phantom pain.
Phantom pain comes from a body part that is no longer there. The exact cause of the phenomenon is still unknown, but it appears to originate from the brain and spinal cord. As the nerve signals are abruptly stopped in the stump, signals are sent to the brain alarming it that something must be wrong (these signals come in the form of pain).
Up to 80 percent of amputees will have to deal with phantom pain at some point, although the duration, type and intensity of pain will vary from person to person. This pain may be a shooting, sharp, burning, stabbing or throbbing sensation.
Because no pain management methods have been proven to help amputees deal with phantom pain, they often turn to antidepressants or morphine. Neither of these methods actually reduces levels of pain, but they do create additional negative side effects. However, the growth of VR has opened up an exciting method of therapy for amputees as well as people affected by stroke, arthritis, disk disease, bone injuries and osteoporosis.
Dr Max Ortiz Catalan is a leading researcher in the field of phantom pain and VR. Catalan and his team designed a therapy that involves augmented reality, and tested it on a patient who had been struggling with phantom pain for over 48 years.
Electrodes recorded muscle signals from the stump of the patient’s arm, and used software to convert those signals into movement of a virtual arm, superimposed over a video of the patient taken with a webcam. By thinking about moving his missing arm, the patient was able to control the virtual arm, using it to perform tasks such as driving a simulated car in a racing game.
The patient reported a gradual decline in pain, and experienced pain-free periods over the course of his VR treatments. He said his hand changed from feeling painfully clenched to feeling open and relaxed.
Even stroke patients are vastly improving their quality of life through the use of Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment. Psychological, physical, and cognitive benefits are all a part of engaging in VR activities.
Research has found that VR and stroke rehabilitation has been effective in addressing motor deficits and shortening the recovery process for many patients, improving their motor functioning in ways that are not possible through physical therapy alone.
Hopefully, amputees will be able to access these therapeutic methods in the comfort of their own home one day and will be able to return to society faster and lead a fulfilling, pain-free life.