Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Arthritis Pain Relief Optical Illusion - ABC News

An optical illusion that harnesses the power of
suggestion might one day deliver drug-free pain
relief to arthritis sufferers, British researchers say.

Analgesic and anti-inflammatory pills and physical
therapy are among traditional approaches to reducing
or eliminating the aches and pains of chronic
osteoarthritis, common among men and women older
than 50. In recent years, many sufferers have tried
complementary and alternative approaches such as
yoga, massage and acupuncture to counter the pain
and stiffness of the wear and tear on their joints.
Now, psychologists at the University of Nottingham
say that they might have serendipitously stumbled
upon a new, non-invasive way of turning down the
pain dial by tapping into brain-body connections.

They achieve relief by fooling the brain with
something they call "illusory manipulation." It's
similar to the "mirror therapy" administered to reduce
phantom pain some amputees experience where their m
issing limbs used to be. A mirror and lens optically
"resurrect" the missing limb; shrinking the image
lessens the pain.

At an open house last April, University of Nottingham
psychologists Roger Newport and Catherine Preston
were demonstrating Mirage technology, which they
developed to study how the brain processes visual
and other sensory signals. Curious children took
turns sticking their hands into the Mirage box and
watching cool-looking illusions that make them seem
to be wider, narrower, longer or shorter -- much like
what happens when you stand in front of body-
distorting mirrors in a fun house -- except that
Mirage uses real-time video and computer-generated
images projected onto a screen. Youngsters can
watch on-screen as one of the researchers gently
pushes or pulls at their fingers. Through the magic of
mirrors and computer effects, the on-screen image
seems to show their fingers growing longer just as
they're feeling the researcher pull, or shrinking as
they feel the researcher push.

At one point, "the grandmother of one of the children
wanted to have a go, but warned us to be gentle
because of the arthritis in her fingers," said Preston, a
psychologist now at Nottingham Trent University. "We
were giving her a practical demonstration of illusory
finger stretching when she announced, 'My finger
doesn't hurt anymore' and asked whether she could
take the machine home with her. We were just
stunned. I don't know who was more surprised, her
or us."

Intrigued by the grandmother's reaction, Preston
and Newport, an associate psychology professor at
the University of Nottingham, wanted to investigate
further. They contacted a local osteoarthritis support
group to find volunteers who might help determine
more scientifically whether Mirage's effects were real,
or just an illusion.

They recruited 20 volunteers, average age 70, with
painful arthritis. With a hand in the Mirage box,
volunteers' brains processed both the sensations they
felt and what they saw on the screen. When they rated
their pain, 85 percent of participants on average said
it was halved. Pain vanished for six patients.

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