November 14, 2006 10:45 AM PST

Virtual reality can ease phantom limb pain

U.K. scientists have created a virtual-reality program to treat patients who've lost a limb. Early tests show the simulation can ease an amputee's phantom pain.

A computer-generated virtual-reality system that gives patients the illusion their lost limb is still there has been jointly developed at the University of Manchester's School of Computer Science and its School of Psychological Sciences, the researchers said Tuesday. The system creates a virtual mirror image of an amputee's lost limb by tracing the remaining physical limb.

Patients put on a headset to see a 3D version of themselves with both limbs. Amputees are also fitted with special sensors via glove or joint cover for their missing limb to collect data on their movements. If the patient has lost an arm, for example, he or she can control movements of the missing arm with the functional limb. Yet both arms will appear to be working in the virtual world.

The scientists said that during initial tests, the system reduced feelings of phantom pain, or discomfort patients sometimes feel in a missing limb. The findings add to previous research that shows if patients have the illusion that a lost limb is restored, their pain can subside.

"Many people who undergo an amputation experience a phantom limb," project leader Craig Murray said in a statement. "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 scientists presented their findings at a recent medical conference in Denmark.

The study showed that the system worked for four out of the five patients, over a period of about three months. The researchers plan to test a larger group of patients soon to find out which patients are most likely to benefit from the system.

"Most people know about 3D graphics and virtual reality from their use in the entertainment industry, (but) it's very satisfying being able to apply the same technology to something that may have a real positive impact on someone's health and well-being," said Steve Pettifer of the School of Computer Science.

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