Using mirrors to treat phantom limb pain

Phantom limb pain is mild to extreme pain in the area where a limb has been amputated. It usually disappears or decreases, but in some people it leads to a lifelong struggle with chronic pain.

Dr. Jack Tsao from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences had excellent success using mirror and imagery therapy in patients who had a foot or leg amputated.

First, the details.

  • 22 patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. were assigned to one of 3 groups where they did assigned activities 15 minutes each day, 5 days per week.
  • The mental visualization group moved the intact foot while visualizing moving the amputated (phantom) foot, accomplishing this by using the mirror to reflect their opposite (intact) foot. This created the illusion of having two completely normal legs.
  • The covered mirror group did the same, but the mirror, of course, was covered.
  • The mental visualization group simply closed their eyes and visualized moving the amputated foot.

And, the results.

  • Pain decreased as early as the first week.
  • After 4 weeks, the number and length of the phantom limb pain episodes decreased 100% in the group using the mirror.
  • Pain decreased 17% in the covered mirror group and 33% in the mental visualization group.
  • When the patients in the mental visualization and covered mirror groups were switched to the mirror method, they also reported significant decreases in pain.

The bottom line?
Several years ago doctors at the University of Dublin reported success in one patient using mirrors. This study builds on that success.

Dr. Mark James Borigini, writing on ChronicPainConnection.com concludes, “It appears that mirror therapy is a novel and safe therapy for the often perplexing problem of phantom limb pain.”

“The mind is a powerful healer in many situations, but sometimes it needs a little help.”

12/8/07 21:52 JR

Hi, I’m JR

John Russo, Jr., PharmD, is president of The MedCom Resource, Inc. Previously, he was senior vice president of medical communications at www.Vicus.com, a complementary and alternative medicine website.