Amputations must occur for a variety of reasons: injuries, diabetes, infections, cancer, and so on. If an individual is not learning to live day to day with an amputation, the individual may never realize some of the hardships amputees must learn to cope with. One of the most widely studied phenomena that approximately 90% of amputees face is that of phantom pain. Phantom limb pain (PLP) is described as ongoing painful sensations that seem to be coming from the part of the limb that is no longer there. While the limb is physically not part of the body any longer, this pain is very real. Amputees describe the pain as burnings, twisting, itching, and even pressure. PLP typically begins soon after surgery and can last for seconds, minutes, hours, and even days.
One of the therapy techniques associated with PLP is called mirror therapy. Mirror therapy was initially described as a successful treatment in the mid 1990’s by Dr. Vilayanur Racmachandran. Mirror therapy works by essentially tricking the brain into thinking there is no pain. Pain signals are known to be processed in specialized areas of the brain. Mirror therapy can help change the inputs and outputs in terms of pain by receiving input that tricks the brain into believing both limbs are intact. The brain is able to change the input and output of the pain by following a few basic steps:
Grab a standard mirror.
Sit where appropriate for the amputation and position the mirror across the midline of the body. The amputation site should be hidden behind the mirror.
The mirror should reflect the functional, healthy limb. Due to this, the brain encodes the information that no amputation has occurred.
Stabilize the mirror and perform certain movements such as circle motions with the functional limb. This movement will trick the brain into thinking both limbs are moving and make it seem as if no amputation ever occurred.
These steps help rewire the brain and help reduce and even eliminate pain that was associated at the amputation site.
For a first hand experience from an amputee who can better explain mirror therapy, I found this informational YouTube. This is not from a doctor, physical therapist, specialist, or anyone aside from an individual who is navigating PLP and educating others on her personal experience. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ytw4GMz88Y
Darnall, B. D. (2010, December). Mirror therapy. Amputee Coalition. https://www.amputee-coalition.org/resources/mirror-therapy/.
Rosenblum, L. D. (2011). See what I’m saying: The extraordinary powers of our five senses. Norton Paperback.