Virtual reality can reduce phantom body pain in paraplegics

Paraplegics often suffer neuropathic pain due to spinal cord lesion that typically originates from the legs, even though nothing can be felt below the lesion.

The study used virtual reality goggles that showed a pre-recorded video of legs viewed from above, as if the patient was looking down onto their own legs. The scientists then tapped the subject’s back with one rod, whilst simultaneously tapping the ‘dummy’ legs with another rod.

The subject therefore technically receives two types of stimuli. Despite acknowledging they are being tapped on the back, the subject begins to feel as though the tapping comes from the paralysed legs.

The research leaders suggest:

“It takes about a minute of simultaneously tapping for the illusion to take place. The tapping on the back gets translated onto the legs because the visual stimulus dominates over the tactile one.”

Polona Poeg, co-author of the study and neuroscientist at the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV), said:

“We tapped the back of the subject near the shoulders and the subject experienced the illusion that the tapping originated from the paralyzed legs. This is because the subject also received visual stimuli of dummy legs being tapped, viewed through the virtual reality headset, so the subject saw them immersively as his or her own legs.”

Explaining the findings further, Olof Blanke, lead author of the study, holder of the Foundation Bertarelli Chair in Cognitive Neuroprosthetics and neuroscientist at EPFL, Switzerland said:

“We managed to provoke an illusion: the illusion that the subject’s legs were being lightly tapped, when in fact the subject was actually being tapped on the back, above the spinal cord lesion. When we did this, the subjects also reported that their pain had diminished.”

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