Looking in the mirror is something that most people do at least once a day. For those with phantom limb pain, however, this everyday action could have a significant impact. Learn what mirror therapy is, and discover what it could mean for those who suffer from phantom limb syndrome.
How does phantom limb pain feel?
At any point after an amputation, it is not uncommon for patients to feel uncomfortable sensations at the amputation site. Experts believe this happens because the nerve endings at the site continue to send signals to the brain. As a result, a large number of amputees feel pain, itchiness, cramping, and heat or cold. Some patients even have a sensation that their missing limb is still there, moving with the rest of their body.
For years, medical professionals have developed treatments for phantom limb pain with varying levels of success. Some patients benefit from massage and physical therapy, while others require more advanced treatments like brain stimulation or neurectomy. Those seeking a less invasive type of treatment may now have a new option, known as mirror therapy.
How does mirror therapy work?
Temple University researchers are the driving force behind mirror therapy, which requires patients to look in a mirror as they perform certain movements. When they move, the mirror reveals a reflection of the moving limb and creates the illusion that the amputated limb is also moving.
Over time, this action helps the brain to process the amputation site differently. Instead of triggering sensations of pain or discomfort, mirror therapy helps the brain think that the injured limb is still present and functioning normally. As a result, phantom limb pain subsides. It also makes related treatments such as physical therapy much more manageable.
This treatment might sound simple, but it has already proven helpful for numerous amputees. Pain and symptom reduction doesn’t just happen overnight, though. Current studies are tracking the progress of several patients over the course of eight weeks. Patients receive anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes of mirror therapy per day, five or six days per week.
What does the future of mirror therapy hold for phantom limb pain sufferers?
Mirror therapy studies at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center will continue to reveal more about the potential of this treatment. After testing mirror therapy on patients with less serious cases of phantom limb pain, researchers believe that the method may also be effective for those with the most severe cases.
Due to the types of injuries they sustain prior to amputation, military members and veterans are sometimes considered the biggest phantom limb pain sufferers. Most types of injuries that they endure also happen to civilians, however, so testing mirror therapy on veterans could expand treatment options for all kinds of patients.
If mirror therapy continues to be successful, it could help patients in a number of ways. In addition to relieving pain, this treatment could help patients regain mobility and improve their quality of life.
The future of mirror therapy looks promising for phantom limb sufferers. Additional tests will confirm just how helpful this treatment for taking charge of chronic pain can be as well as which patients can benefit from looking in the mirror.