Researcher Uses Virtual Reality to Reduce Phantom Limb Pain

Based on Dr. Rui Loureiro’s article, “Free Radical,” in Portico, the magazine of University College London (UCL), December 2018.

Dr. Rui Loureiro of the Department of Materials and Tissue at UCL has discovered that virtual reality can be used to reduce phantom limb pain. Instead of managing pain by reminding the body that the  limb had been removed like most phantom limb treatments, this alternative approach seeks to reduce pain by tricking the brain into thinking the limb is still there.

Phantom limb pain is a common and serious problem among amputees. Pain can reach chronic levels, potentially disabling amputees from using prosthetic replacements. However, this virtual reality treatment helps to stop this neuropathic pain. When patients use virtual reality, they can control virtual limbs with their own muscles. This sends the brain both visual and neural feedback, so lost neural pathways can be rebuilt.

Dr. Loureiro believes this new treatment can change lives. During trials, patients’ pain levels were reduced by 68% after just 11 therapy sessions. While lifelong pain management treatment has an estimated cost of over $600,000, the prosthetic used for the virtual reality sessions costs only $4,500. A lower cost means more patients can be treated.

This breakthrough in phantom limb pain treatment could help many amputees in a in a drug-free and less expensive way.