Virtual Limbs Ease Amputees’ Pain

By putting on a headset, patients will see themselves with two limbs. They can use their remaining physical limb to control the movements of a computer-generated limb, which appears in the 3D computer-generated world in the space of their amputated limb. So for example, they can use their physical right arm to control the movement of their virtual left arm. Patients have complex hand-eye coordination and can move their fingers, hands, arms, feet and legs. They can also use their virtual limb to play ball games.

Phantom limb pain or PLP is discomfort felt by a person in a limb that is missing due to amputation. Previous research has found that when a person’s brain is ‘tricked’ into believing they can see and move a ‘phantom limb’, pain can decrease.

So far, five patients - including one who has suffered from PLP for 40 years – have used the virtual reality system over several weeks in a small-scale study. But this initial project has produced startling results, with four out of the five patients reporting improvement in their phantom limb pain. Some improvements were almost immediate.

Project leader, Dr Craig Murray of the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Manchester said: “Many people who undergo an amputation experience a phantom limb. These are often very painful for the person concerned. They can persist for many years, and are very difficult to treat. One patient felt that the fingers of her amputated hand were continually clenched into her palm, which was very painful for her. However, after just one session using the virtual system she began to feel movement in her fingers and the pain began to ease.”; Source: The University of Manchester