Augmented reality is helping amputees deal with phantom limb pain

If Pokémon Go is your only experience of augmented reality in action, you may find it hard to believe the technology could be used for anything other than tracking down and catching that elusive Ditto. However, according to a study published in UK medical journal The Lancet, augmented reality could have a real tangible impact on the lives of amputees by alleviating the torment of phantom limb pain.

By using an array of sensors attached to a participant’s stump, researchers used an augmented-reality arm – shown on a mirror-like TV display in front of the participant – to alleviate the pains from a phantom limb. Signals from the sensors were fed into a computer to recreate a virtual representation of a missing arm that responded to how each patient attempted to move their missing limb.

The study looked at 14 participants who all experienced phantom limb pain shortly after having an arm amputated between two and 36 years ago, and revealed that – on average – the frequency of phantom limb pain fell post-treatment. Pain intensity, duration and frequency also fell following treatment.

These weren’t short-term gains, either, with participants all saying they had felt reduced phantom limb pain up to six months after the 12 two-hour treatments had finished. In this period the number of patients feeling constant pain had dropped by half, from 12 to just six. Of course, it’s not a perfect solution – with one patient stating it hadn’t improved their pain at all, only reducing “flare-ups” – but it’s clear to see the medical benefits of augmented reality in the treatment of amputees suffering from phantom limb pain.

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“Phantom limb pain is a difficult condition to treat that can seriously hinder patients’ quality of life,” said assistant professor Max Ortiz Catalan, lead author of the study from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden. “The results from our study suggest that it may be useful to ‘exercise’ the phantom limb. Our treatment offers an engaging way to do this while also providing a non-invasive and non-pharmacological treatment which was found to reduce chronic pain with no observed side effects.”

Despite the positive results for augmented reality as a treatment method, Catalan recognises that there’s still a long way to go before it can ever become an adopted method, stating that “our findings now need to be confirmed in a large randomised clinical trial”.

Still, it’s great to see augmented reality being put to use in innovative ways within healthcare. It’s these use cases that technology such as Microsoft’s HoloLens could really help in – imagine being an amputee and then being able to look down and see a limb where you had previously lost one, moving just as you’d expect it to. That’s life-changing magic.

Image: Bruce Guenter – Flickr

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