Using Virtual Reality to Relieve Amputees' Phantom Limb Pain

Researchers at UTD are using VR and 3D technology to help relieve the phantom limb pains of veterans living with amputations

NBCUniversal, Inc.

Local veterans living with an amputation are getting a chance to use virtual reality in a way they likely had never imagined.

A clinical trial of a therapy to alleviate phantom limb pain is underway at The University of Texas at Dallas.

The researchers’ therapy, called Mixed Reality System for Managing Phantom Pain, is designed to help the brain resolve the signals.

Phantom limb pain is believed to be caused by mixed signals to the brain after an amputation.

The system uses a 3D camera and virtual reality software to trick an amputee's brain into seeing the missing limb.

Navy veteran 67-year-old Dean Peterson is one of the trial participants.

He lost his lower left leg in a hunting accident 17 years ago.

He said he tried the classic therapy for phantom limb pain, called Mirror Box therapy, but said he didn't get the same relief he got after using the mixed reality system, in-home, twice a day for four weeks.

"I noticed it's easier to go to sleep now and that was a pretty good thing. That's a really good thing!" said Peterson.

Wearing the VR headset, the trial participant plays a series of games that involve using the virtual model of the missing limb to complete tasks such as stomping or bursting a bubble on the screen.

The project is the result of years of research led by Dr. Balakrishnan Prabhakaran and in collaboration with the Veterans Affairs North Texas Health Care System.

Dr. Prabhakaran hopes the therapy can become a safer alternative to pain-relieving opioids.

"People talk about opioid addicts as if the person is the problem. The person is not the problem. The medication is the problem. It rewires the person's brain, and when you look at this technology, it's not doing that. It is tricking your brain to make you believe whatever we want the amputee to believe, but it's not rewiring the brain in an addictive manner. Well, you can get addicted to the game. You are going to play the game for more time, but that's not going to spoil your quality of life," said Dr. Prabhakaran.

"This is beyond cool. My only regret is that I'm not 20 years younger, so I can enjoy it longer," said Peterson, who hopes the treatment becomes available to consumers.

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