Fresh hope through the looking glass
September 3, 2010
AUSTRALIAN hospitals are using a remarkable new treatment that effectively tricks the brain of an injured patient into thinking their problem has deteriorated or gone away.
Austin Health physiotherapist Anne Daly said the technique, which involves the use of mirrors, was helping patients recover from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, a gruelling condition that causes unrelenting pain in a person’s limb, usually after they have suffered an injury.
She said research showed that getting patients with the syndrome to practise exercises with both their non-affected and affected limbs while looking in a mirror had helped to reprogram the cause of their syndrome deep within their brains.
The technique, she said, appeared to be unravelling changes in the brain that had started to couple particular movements in the affected limb with sensation and pain.
”The brain is so complex that a lot of this is underneath what someone can think their way in or out of,” she said.
”Around a third of the patients that I have used this with are significantly better, a third are somewhat better, and about a third don’t seem to change. When you are looking at outcomes in chronic pain, that is very good.”
Dr Eric Visser, a pain medicine specialist and anaesthetist at Fremantle Hospital, said the therapy had also been used successfully with amputees who experienced sometimes excruciating ”phantom limb pain” when the brain continues sending faulty signals to the limb that is no longer there.
By using a mirror to reflect the healthy limb, patients could start to feel as though they are seeing and moving their missing limb to relieve discomfort.
”We are becoming more holistic when it comes to treating pain,” Dr Visser said.
”Most people – and that includes doctors – have a very traditional idea of what pain is, i.e. a nerve impulse travels to the brain and we feel pain. But treatments like nerve blocks and medication are often not successful and more and more research is showing that pain is much more of a whole-person experience.”
One of Ms Daly’s patients, Wendy Mackellow Barker, said she was sceptical about the therapy at first, but it had started to relieve the symptoms of the syndrome in her foot.
The sensation of moving her unaffected foot in the mirror drew some of the discomfort away from her affected foot.
”It can actually feel quite nice when you do it,” she said. ”It’s a slow process but it’s making me feel like I’m regaining control.”
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