Amputees who play computer games with a virtual arm experience relief from the phantom limb pain that often affects those who have lost a limb, according to a new study from Gothenburg’s Chalmers University of Technology.
The 14 amputees who participated in the study reported dramatic pain relief after 12 sessions using a virtual arm in virtual reality (VR). The reduction in duration, frequency, and intensity of pain was almost 50 percent, according to the study published in medical journal The Lancet.
“It’s a very encouraging result considering these patients had tried up to four different treatments without success before,” study head Max Ortiz Catalan from Chalmers University said. “What we also saw was that the pain lowered and lowered up until the last treatment session. That suggests you can achieve even better results with more sessions as the pain reduction didn’t level out,” he added.
People who have lost an arm or a leg often report the sensation of having a phantom limb – pain where the limb used to be – for years after the amputation. It can often be enough to impact their quality of life and mental health.
Phantom pain occurs when nerve endings at the amputation site continue to send pain signals to the brain, which believes the limb is still there. The VR therapy used in the study allows the patient to ‘move’ the lost arm in order to perform virtual tasks like driving a virtual car.
The patients see themselves on the screen with a virtual arm where their real arm used to be, and see the arm move when they control it. This method gets patients to re-activate areas on the brain which used to move their arm before it was amputated, Chalmers explained in a press release.