Immersive Digital Therapy Uses VR to Reduce Phantom Pain in Patients with Spinal Cord Injury

October 2017 - Using a pair of fake legs and virtual reality (VR) headsets, researchers from the École Polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland have found a way to alleviate the pain that individuals with paraplegia experience. Phantom pain is a phenomenon where people experience sensations (including pain) from a missing limb. The VR headset provided people with a spinal-cord injury with a first-person view of their virtual legs. When researchers stimulated the false legs with taps and bumps, participants said that they felt them, and experienced less neuropathic pain. Olaf Blanke, lead author and Foundation Bertarelli Chair in Cognitive Neuroprosthetics wrote, “We managed to provoke an illusion: the illusion that the subject’s legs were being lightly tapped, when in fact the subject was actually being tapped on the back, above the spinal cord lesion. When we did this, the subjects also reported that their pain had diminished.”

Polona Požeg, co-author of the study and neuroscientist at the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) wrote, “We tapped the back of the subject near the shoulders and the subject experienced the illusion that the tapping originated from the paralyzed legs. This is because the subject also received visual stimuli of dummy legs being tapped, viewed through the virtual reality headset, so the subject saw them immersively as his or her own legs.” The team is currently working on furthering their work into ‘immersive digital therapy’ to provide visuo-tactile simulations for patients with spinal injury and other people with mobility impairments. [Source: Hillary Sanctuary, Mediacom]


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