Reflect (ha-ha) for a moment, how nice it would be, if something as simple as looking in a mirror could help lessen your pain. Well, you might like what you see!!
Mirror image therapy is an exciting treatment for an increasing number of pain conditions. Today we’ll look at an uncommon pain disorder, phantom pain, but one that started us down the path of using mirror image therapy for pain.
Phantom pain is pain in a part of the body that’s no longer there, e.g. from an accident, surgery, etc. This pain is most common in limbs, but can also occur in other body parts, e.g. a breast after mastectomy. It’s more likely to occur if pain was present before removal of the body part.
The exact causes of phantom pain are uncertain, but ideas include:
- a brain memory of pain, if there was pain before an amputation
- re-wiring of nerve circuits in the brain as the brain experiences a change in incoming sensations from the body part that’s now missing
- abnormal re-growth in the cut nerve endings
The most interesting possible explanation for phantom limb pain involves the brain’s body map. A newer idea, this hypothesis says that there’s an internal representation of your body in your brain. It helps us know where our bodies are in space, even with our eyes shut. It also helps us perform movements, without having to think about each little part of a complex movement.
When there’s a mis-match between the brain’s internal image and the sensations that register as being from the missing body part, the brain may interpret these as pain.
For example, if I want to pick up a cup, my brain needs to figure out things like:
- where my hand is now
- where my hand is each time my muscles move it, to make interim adjustments
- what force I need to create to pick something up, etc.
My brain also gets sensations as I’m performing this task:
- what position my hand is in to start
- what position my hand is in as my muscles move it
- what force I’m exerting on the cup, etc.
When there are problems with these outgoing and incoming sensations, pain can occur. For example, when my brain sends a message to my hand to open, but nothing happens, problems can start. Likewise, when my brain sends that message to open my hand, but there are no sensations coming back of my hand opening, problems can start.
2 excellent websites where you can learn more, as well as purchase a mirror with instructions for use: