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Augmented Reality Helps Patients With Chronic Phantom Limb Pain

amputee views virtual hand on computer screen

An amputee moves his virtual hand on the computer screen.

Credit: BBC

A new treatment developed by Max Ortiz Catalan at the U.K.'s Chalmers University of Technology can help alleviate amputees' phantom limb pain. The approach, called phantom motor execution, relies on machine learning and augmented reality. Electrodes on the skin pick up electric signals in the muscles, and artificial intelligence algorithms translate them into movements of a virtual arm in real time. Patients see themselves on a screen with the virtual arm and can control it like a biological arm.

In testing on more than a dozen amputees, the technique reduced phantom limb pain by about 50 percent. The virtual representation enables patients to reactivate areas of the brain used to move the arm before it was amputated, and might be the reason the phantom pain decreased.

"The results are very encouraging, especially considering that these patients had tried up to four different treatment methods in the past with no satisfactory results," Ortiz Catalan says. "In our study, we also saw that the pain continuously decreased all the way through to the last treatment. The fact that the pain reduction did not plateau suggests that further improvement could be achieved with more sessions."

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