New VR Treatment Gives Hope for Phantom Pain Relief

By Tadhg O’ Sullivan

Phantom pain is the term used to describe sensations felt by amputees, which may include tingling, itching, twisting, cramping, pins-and-needles, stabbing pains, pressure, a sense of fullness as if the limb was still there, but slightly swollen. Up to 90 percent of amputees experience this pain.

It is not fully known what causes phantom pain, but it has been hypothesised by experts in the field that the unnatural transection of the nerves and where they end can induce discharges which the nervous system reads as pain.

The University Medical Centre Groningen (UMCG) is the sole academic centre in the Netherlands participating in a worldwide study involving virtual reality (VR) and how it can be used to treat phantom pain.

In the study, patients are treated with virtual reality and augmented reality training. Virtual reality is simulating reality with computers. Augmented reality is the addition of digital information to reality.

During the treatment, the participants move their phantom arm or leg by tightening muscles in their stump. The training consists of a number of computer games. During the treatment, the participants see themselves on a computer screen and whilst playing the games their muscle activity is registered via the electrodes.

Before and after each treatment, participants complete a questionnaire about their phantom pain. “At the moment we can’t fully comment on the research as we have only finished the preliminary tests with our first test group. There is still more work to be done before we can conclusively talk about improvements.” Said a spokesperson for the extremities pain and disability programme at UMCG.

However, she later added that “One member from the first test group reported that they woke up for the first time in 23 years without phantom pain which of course is wonderfully encouraging.”

The study could turn out to be a breakthrough in a field that really has no other pain relief method that has proven to be universal with amputees.

A spokesperson for the Netherlands amputee football federation said that although he was unfamiliar with the exact details he had heard one or two people talk about VR treatment and is excited about the possibilities.

“Of course, it is a problem big and small for most of our members so any breakthrough like the one in Groningen would be amazing.”

UMCG will continue with the study and are hopeful that VR treatment can soon become a regular treatment option for amputees.