Don't look now, but a computer game just might be the perfect tool to manage certain kinds of pain.
An amputee who has suffered pain for a very long time, and as a result, has not had a good night's sleep in almost half a century, played an augmented reality game which successfully alleviated his pain. No, he did not stay up all night playing that game in true gamer fashion. Instead, when the game was over he went to bed, and had his first good night's sleep in 48 years.
The game was developed by a team at the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg and Sahlgrenska University Hospital. The initial work was done in 2012 by Max Ortiz Catalan, who developed a technique for implanting thought-controlled robotic arms and their electrodes directly to the bones and nerves of amputees.
"They will be able to simultaneously control several joints and motions, as well as to receive direct neural feedback on their actions," said Catalan, a researcher in biomedicine and artificial intelligence at the Chalmers University of Technology.
Phantom limb pain is a peculiar pain experienced by amputees in limbs that have already been removed. The pain is felt as if the painful limb was still there. This kind of pain, whose exact cause is unknown, can be chronic and can cause deterioration in the quality of a person's life, as the dire effect on the amputee is not just physical but psychological as well.
About 70 percent of all amputees suffer from phantom limb pain, and so far the most popular of the current treatments is one called 'mirror therapy,' in which the amputee faces a mirror so that their remaining limb may look like it has taken the place of the missing one. He can then move the limb and their brain might make them feel as if they were able to move the missing limb to some degree. However, this technique remains insufficient, especially for amputees who have lost both their right and left limbs.
The new method developed by Catalan translates the principles of myoelectric prosthesis work and brings it to phantom limb therapy. The new method utilizes the muscle signals from the patient's arm stump to manipulate a set of realities that are virtual rather than real, known as augmented reality. Electrodes in the skin sense the electrical signals sent by the muscles in the arm stump, and then complex algorithms translate these signals into arm movements. The patient can see himself on the computer screen with a complete arm, and he can control this virtual arm in real time using his own neural command.
Catalan's brainchild has now come to life, and was tested by long-time amputee Ture Johanson of Sweden, who is 73 years old and who lost his right arm in a below-the elbow amputation after a car accident 48 years ago. Johanson has lived with phantom limb pain everyday, and has tried numerous methods, including hypnosis, to alleviate it, but all efforts have been unsuccessful.
Johanson experienced significant relief from pain just weeks after starting his augmented reality therapy. Now, he says that he feels pain only in his little finger and the top of his ring finger, when it used to be from his wrist to his little finger. Before his treatment, he also felt his phantom arm to be very tense, with his phantom hand clenched into a tight fist. After the treatment, he has felt his arm to be more relaxed.
Johanson also said that he is confident that he has learned to control the movements in his phantom arm even when he is no longer connected to the augmented reality machine.
"The motor areas in the brain needed for movement of the amputated arm are reactivated, and the patient obtains visual feedback that tricks the brain into believing there is an arm executing such motor commands. He experiences himself as a whole, with the amputated arm back in place," explained Catalan.
One wonders if this means that playing video games such as Flappy Bird for long periods of time can soon be the cure for other kinds of pain, such as headaches, stomach aches, and general bodily pains, but it's better not to hold one's breath for that.