Mirror Therapy


Phantom limb pain is a condition that develops after an arm or a leg has been amputated. It may also occur following the removal of a breast or even after a stroke when a body part loses its function. Although the body part is no longer present or not functioning, the nerves located near the site continue to send pain signals to the brain, often making the person believe that the limb is still there. Phantom limb pain is quite prevalent, with estimates suggesting that 50-85% of people suffer from this condition following an amputation. This pain syndrome can vary in intensity, with some people experiencing debilitating, chronic pain that must be treated. Traditional approaches to treatment include a wide variety of pharmacological agents, nerve blocking, neuromodulation and surgical treatments. These treatment protocols have had only modest success in alleviating phantom limb pain and can carry the risk of adverse reactions and other complications. An ingenious, non-invasive form of treatment, called Mirror Therapy, has shown tremendous results in the treatment of phantom limb pain.

What is Mirror Therapy?

Developed by the famous neuroscientist, V.S. Ramachandran, Mirror Therapy (or MT) cleverly takes advantage of the neural infrastructure of our brains. That is because scientists have discovered that humans – just like other primates-  have evolved mirror neurons, in their pre-motor cortex, which are sensitive to stimuli involved in mimicking the behavior of others and others mimicking our behaviors. One seminal implication of these specialized cells is that when we observe others behaving like we do, mirror neurons begin to fire rapidly, which has the effect of making us believe that we are the ones performing the action. This is the major physiological route through which vicarious learning can take place.  Capitalizing on this knowledge, MT uses a specially designed mirror box that reflects the patient’s unaffected limb, in order to create the illusion that the person’s amputated limb is functioning and free from any pain. This observational feedback stimulates the mirror neurons, which help with the recovery of the affected part.

Is Mirror Therapy Effective?

MT has been shown to be effective based on many case studies and anecdotal data. An experimental trial from 2007 demonstrated that MT was more effective in reducing phantom limb pain than other non-invasive treatments. However, larger more systematic studies have reported mixed results, suggesting that MT is especially useful for cramping and muscular type of phantom pain and may not be as effective for other types of pain. Studies have also shown that MT is helpful for patients with Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome, arthritis of the thumb, carpal tunnel syndrome and people suffering from shoulder pain. MT is often used as an adjunct therapy alongside other treatments to help reduce chronic pain.

What happens during an MT session?

The patient sits comfortably and places their functioning limb into one side of the mirror box and the stump side into the other side. The patient looks into the mirror on the same side of the functioning limb and moves it in various directions. Since the subject is seeing the reflected image of the functioning limb, it appears as if the phantom limb is also moving. Session lengths can be customized to fit the patient’s needs and schedules.

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