Medicine

How Augmented Reality Could Relieve Phantom Limb Pain

For many amputees, phantom limb syndrome is a pain endured long after a limb has been removed. Due to mixups in the wiring of the brain, it can feel as if a missing limb is actually there. The sensation is painful and, at least until recently, untreatable.

How Does It Work?

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Until late 2016, the exact cause of phantom limb pain, which affects about 60-80 percent of amputees, was largely unknown. But a 2016 study published in the journal Nature Communications claims to have identified the cause — and a possible treatment. "In patients with chronic pain associated with amputation or nerve injury, there are 'crossed wires' in the part of the brain associated with sensation and movement, and that by mending that disruption, the pain can be treated," according to a press release about the study.

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"Even though the hand is gone, people with phantom limb pain still feel like there's a hand there — it basically feels painful, like a burning or hypersensitive type of pain, and conventional painkillers are ineffective in treating it," said one of the study's authors.

The Latest Breakthrough

One possible effective treatment for phantom limb, according to a 2016 study published in The Lancet, is what one scientist calls phantom motor execution. "It consist of using muscle signals from the amputated limb to control augmented and virtual environments," explains a press release on the study. "Electric signals in the muscles are picked up by electrodes on the skin. Artificial intelligence algorithms translate the signals into movements of a virtual arm in real-time. The patients see themselves on a screen with the virtual arm in the place of the missing arm, and they can control it as they would control their biological arm." The study found that this approach reduced the study participants' phantom limb pain by 50 percent.

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Phantom Limbs Explained

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. About 60-80% of people who have lost a limb report having phantom sensations (mostly painful) throughout their lives. 00:05

  2. Parts of the brain that are stimulated by parts of the body being touched will carry over stimulation into the newly inactive regions. 00:57

  3. There is still debate over the exact reasons phantom limb syndrome happens. 02:24

What Causes Phantom Limbs

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Why Amputees Get Virtual Reality Limbs

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