Virtual Reality Could Help Amputees Deal With Phantom Pain


The phantom pain that often plagues amputees has remained something of a mystery, but a new treatment shows promising results for reducing this phantom limb pain by an average of 50 percent.

People who have gone through amputations can sometimes feel pain in the limb that is no longer there. Scientists do not have a concrete explanation as to why this pain occurs, but it can often become a chronic condition.

Dr. Max Ortiz Catalan from the Chalmers University of Technology created a treatment that was found to effectively reduce phantom limb pain among participants who did not previously respond to other available treatments.

Courtesy: Chalmers University of Technology
Courtesy: Chalmers University of Technology

The treatment combines augmented reality and machine learning skills. Those participating in the study could see themselves on a screen, with a virtual reality limb where their amputation occurred. The virtual reality arm on the screen was controlled through muscle signals, picked up by electrodes attached to the skin at the amputated limb.

Participants could control the virtual reality arm just as they would a biological arm, in real time. By creating this augmented reality, Ortiz Catalan effectively brought the phantom limb to life, tapping into areas of the brain which may have previously gone dormant.

When a limb is amputated, the areas of the brain that contributed to the movement of the limb are no longer used, as the limb is no longer present. This is the first treatment for phantom limb pain that seeks to reactivate those signals.

The participants selected for this study had been experiencing chronic phantom limb pain and did not respond to any prior treatments for their pain. Four of the participants were constantly medicated, as this phantom pain had greatly affected their quality of life.

After 12 sessions of the augmented reality treatment, patients reported a significant decrease in phantom limb pain, with an average improvement of 50 percent. Two of the four patients who experienced the most pain and relied on medication for relief were able to cut their medication substantially, one by 81 percent and another by 33 percent.

The results of this study show great promise in an area which has not previously seen tremendous success. While clinical treatments for phantom limb pain do exist and are recommended, there are several cases, such as the participants in Ortiz Catalan’s study, who do not experience any relief from these traditional methods. The augmented reality treatment could be the answer.

Pain continued to decrease as sessions continued, suggesting that regularly scheduled treatment could continue to improve the quality of life of the participants. Even after treatments ended, patients still felt pain relief after six months. These factors suggest that this could potentially be the most effective way to treat chronic phantom limb pain.