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Fixing phantom limbs with virtual reality

Pain relief through pixels

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Amputees suffering from phantom limb pain could be helped by a virtual reality system being developed by scientists at the University of Manchester.

Earlier research has shown that phantom limb pain can be alleviated by fooling the brain into thinking that it can see and move the amputated limb. The Manchester scientists have developed a virtual world in which patients have their missing limb replaced with a virtual one.

The research has focused on a small group of patients who had lost a limb between one and 40 years ago. Two were upper limb amputees and two had lost parts of their legs. They all used the virtual world between seven and 10 times over the course of three months. Each session lasted for 30 minutes.

The patients were fitted with special data gloves and sensors, and their head and arm movements were monitored. They donned virtual reality helmets and entered a world where they could see their missing limb restored.

In this virtual universe, patients can move their fingers, hands, arms, feet and legs. They also have hand eye co-ordination, and can use their virtual limb to play ball games, the researchers say.

The results shocked the researchers: four of the five patients reported improvements in the phantom limb pain, and much faster than the team had expected.

Project leader Dr Craig Murray said: "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."

The team has presented the findings at a conference in Denmark on the use of virtual reality for rehabilitation. ®

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