Imagine how difficult it would be as a patient to learn that you need to have a limb amputated. After having come to terms with that trauma, and undergone the necessary procedure, imagine then living with constant chronic pain.
Unfortunately that is the case for a large number of amputees with up to 7 out of 10 suffering from what is known as phantom limb pain once their limb has been amputated.
However, doctors have recently developed a new way to treat amputees who have phantom limb pain. Using computer-generated augmented reality, the patient can see and move a virtual arm that they control using their stump. Electric signals from the muscles in the amputated limb “talk” to the computer, allowing movement to happen in real-time.
A 73 year-old Swedish man says that his pain has reduced dramatically thanks to the new computer program, which he now uses regularly in his home. Ture Johanson had to have his right arm amputated below the elbow after a car accident in 1965 and suffered pain and discomfort from his missing arm and hand on a daily basis ever since. After decades of trying a variety of therapies including hypnosis and mirror therapy he was still unable to find a satisfactory solution to this pain. However, within a few weeks of undergoing augmented reality treatment at Chalmers University of Technology he found that his pain has begun to ease. He now has periods when he is free of pain and he is no longer woken at night by intense periods of pain. When he does experience pain, it is now lasting for seconds when it used to last for several minutes at a time.
During the treatment Johanson was asked to perform particular movements with the phantom limb. Myoelectric electrodes on his stump showed his attempted muscle movements for the missing arm, and the image of an arm on a screen reflected those movements back to him. If he moved his torso, the virtual arm moved with him.
Another benefit for Johanson following the treatment is that he now feels as though his phantom hand is in a relaxed position, whereas for the past 48 years it has felt like a clenched fist. He has also now learned to control the movements of his phantom hand even when he is not wired up to the computer or watching the virtual limb on screen.
Max Ortiz Catalan, who has devised the new treatment, says that his method is different from previous attempts to relieve phantom limb pain because the control signals are retrieved from the arm stump, which means that the affected arm is in charge. He also believes that giving the muscles a work-out while being able to watch the actions carried out plays a key role in the therapy. This is because the motor areas in the brain needed to move the amputated arm are reactivated, and the patient obtains visual feedback that tricks their brain into believing there is an arm executing those motor commands and the person then feels whole as if the arm is back in place.
Ortiz Catalan believes that this augmented reality treatment could also be used as a rehabilitation aid for people who have suffered a stroke or have spinal cord injuries.
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