Phantom limb pain may be addressed by computer games

Those who knock computer games as a waste of time might want to check out some new research released on Friday in The Lancet medical journal. As per a new study led by Max Ortiz Catalan of the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, amputees who engaged in computer games with a virtual on-screen arm reported relief from phantom pain that is a common side effect for those who have lost a limb. While the “n” of the study was rather low (it involved just 14 amputees who took part in a total of 12 gaming sessions), the findings do provide a novel solution to this persistent problem.

“The results from our study suggest that it may be useful to ‘exercise’ the phantom limb,” said Catalan. As per study results, the 14 patients ultimately experienced a near 50 percent reduction in their pain duration, frequency, and intensity, after “using” their missing limb in a virtual reality scenario.

During their gaming sessions, the patients would “train” their new limb using the virtual arm in on-screen settings to drive a car around a track. In some ways, this resembles mirror therapy, in which a patient’s unaffected limb is mirrored to make it seem as though the missing limb is being used. That said, mirror therapy has not always proven effective, though more research will doubtless be needed to determine if the computer game strategy is truly a viable alternative.

But those involved in the study are hopeful; Dr. Paul F. Pasquina Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation F. Hebert School of Medicine, noted, “I believe that we are now only beginning to scratch the surface of what advances in computer science will have on healthcare,” which could include “further applications of augmented reality and computer gaming.”

He continued, “We have successfully utilized virtual reality in the care of multiple individuals with combat related injuries, including treating phantom limb pain. I look forward to further exploration in these rapidly expanding new technologies and embrace the cross-disciplinary collaboration that occurs between healthcare professionals, computer scientists and gaming innovators.”

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