Researchers at the University of New Brunswick are trying to determine whether the use of virtual reality can help reduce the brain signals that cause phantom pain. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Study to use virtual reality to find real solution to phantom pain

FREDERICTON — Imagine losing a limb. Now imagine suffering from pain that feels like it’s coming from the limb that is no longer there.

That’s the case for up to 70 per cent of amputees.

Researchers at the University of New Brunswick are trying to determine whether the use of virtual reality can help reduce the brain signals that cause phantom pain.

“In the brain, we need to realign what’s happening with the sensations that the user is feeling with their perception of their limb,” said Jon Sensinger, associate director of UNB’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering.

“This is a new technique that, in a limited field trial, showed great promise — where almost everyone had reduced levels of phantom pain,” he said.

There was an initial study in Sweden in 2016, led by Max Ortiz Catalan, founder of the Biomechatronics and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory at the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg. He is now co-ordinating the latest research with trials in eight locations around the world.

The University of New Brunswick in Fredericton is the only Canadian location.

The research uses sensors, a computer screen and an avatar image of the missing limb.

“You can position your avatar limb in three-dimensional space just by moving your body around,” Sensinger said.

“It’s similar to conventional treatments for phantom pain, in that you’re being guided through a series of exercises in which you’re imagining that you’re moving your limb and you’re also seeing things move. We typically use a mirror and then we have you move your intact arm. So you’re imagining your arm moving and you’re seeing your arm moving,”

Wendy Hill, a research occupational therapist, said they are trying to trick the brain into thinking the missing limb is still there.

“The person can already close their eyes and imagine that limb is still there,” said Hill, who is working with patients in the UNB portion of the study.

“They still feel it in most cases. Tricking the brain into believing that it’s still there is an effective way of managing the pain. Looking at a limb on the screen and following specific movement patterns using the phantom limb is like exercising that phantom limb.”

Sensinger said there’s a great deal to learn about why some people experience phantom pain and others don’t, and how different treatments and the use of prostheses can make a difference.

“Phantom pain can be a huge disability. For some people, they’re always in pain — teeth-gnashing, grinding-your-teeth kind of pain,” he said.

Once the results of the broader study are analyzed, the hope is that within five years virtual reality therapy will replace mirror therapy, improving outcomes for patients.

So far, one person has gone through the study in Fredericton, and Hill said the experience was very rewarding.

She said researchers in New Brunswick are looking for another nine test patients.

They need to be at least 18 years old, an amputee for at least 6 months, and suffering chronic phantom limb pain.

Globally, the study will examine at least 50 patients.

“The preliminary evidence suggests that this is a successful method. Whether it’s more successful than mirror therapy remains to be seen,” said Sensinger.

Just Posted

Art Battle Red Deer to support Women of Excellence Awards

Art Battle Red Deer will be April 6 at the Radisson Hotel

Eliminating racial discrimination events in Red Deer this week

Two upcoming events aim to inspire change and eliminate racial discrimination in… Continue reading

Outfitter facing Wildlife Act charges

It is alleged archery-only hunting licences used out of season

Sunnybrook pies in demand

Just in time for Easter

Red Deer’s Chopped Canada winner takes break from restaurant business

Pete Sok closes Sophear, but plans to eventually relocate

WATCH: Red Deerians can have a say about crime fighting

Municipality will poll citizens about policing priorities

21-year-old charged with drug trafficking in Rocky Mountain House

RCMP seized drugs after conducting a traffic stop and charged a 21-year-old… Continue reading

Liberal bill would tighten controls on sale, licensing of firearms

OTTAWA — Gun retailers would be required to keep records of firearms… Continue reading

Alberta factoring in Trans Mountain pipeline in budget forecasts

EDMONTON — Finance Minister Joe Ceci says Alberta will rely on anticipated… Continue reading

Pooches and pickup truck stolen in Edmonton found in Rimbey

Two old English bulldogs named Rocky and Jersey who were in a… Continue reading

Statistics Canada reports wholesale sales up 0.1 per cent in January

OTTAWA — Statistics Canada says wholesale sales rose 0.1 per cent to… Continue reading

Right whale deaths cost Gulf snow crab fishery its designation as sustainable

HALIFAX — An international organization has suspended a sustainability certificate for the… Continue reading

Financial watchdog says controls to mitigate sales risk at banks ‘insufficient’

TORONTO — Canada’s financial consumer watchdog says there are “insufficient” controls in… Continue reading

Sheriff official: 3 injured in Maryland high school shooting

GREAT MILLS, Md. — A shooting at a Maryland high school Tuesday… Continue reading

Most Read

Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month