Amputees often experience symptoms of phantom limb pain.

According to the Amputee Coalition, every year there are approximately 185,000 amputations performed in the United States. This eventually equates to a total of 2 million people currently living with limb loss in the U.S., a disability that can severely impact everyday activities in life. One symptom that is often unexplored is the sensation of phantom limb pain, which arises in amputated individuals who experience abrupt moments of agony or discomfort where their missing body part used to be.

Recently, researchers from the Chalmers University of Technology, Sahlgrenska University Hospital and the University of Gothenburg and Integrum in Sweden collaborated on a study that explored the characteristics of the feeling, as well as attempting to discover a form of treatment to help comfort pain in amputees. The colleagues reported that an estimated 70 percent of amputees experience sudden pains in their removed limbs, and that most severe cases can actually considerably reduce the individual’s overall quality of life.

While general forms of therapy are often used to help relieve feelings of phantom limb pain, including mirror therapy, hypnosis and various sources of medication, more often than not the patients report no reduction in symptoms. The researchers zeroed in on a new variation of treatment that focused on augmented reality, which uses technology to help recreate or simulate movements in the limb that are no longer possible post-amputation.

The Test

Using a patient who had lost his arm 48 years ago, the researchers used muscle signals from the subject’s arm stump to connect with electrical signals from a computer generated screen that displayed a superimposed virtual arm, which in turn responded to the patient’s movement of muscle signals in real time. The method behind the technology was to sort of ploy the brain into interpreting that the subject was actually moving an arm under its own power, which could potentially relieve the brain from sending stress signals to the stump. After the initial rounds of testing, the patient reported that his pain was drastically reduced, and he was no longer abruptly waking up in the night to episodes of severe discomfort.

Dr. Max Ortiz Catalan, a researcher at the Chalmers University of Technology and lead contributor to the study, felt that his team’s research was able to combine the primary treatment options currently used while also using new methods that go above and beyond the therapeutic choices available.

“There are several features of this system which combined might be the cause of pain relief,” Catalan said in a statement. “Our method differs from previous treatment because the control signals are retrieved from the arm stump, and thus the affected arm is in charge. The promotion of motor execution and the vivid sensation of completion provided by augmented reality may be the reason for the patient improvement, while mirror therapy and medications did not help previously.”

The next step for the team of researchers is to expand their examinations into a wider clinician study to see if this treatment can really help relieve pain symptoms from a wider group of amputees. Until then, the colleagues could be on the verge of establishing a revolutionary healing process for the millions of people currently living with an amputation.

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