Phantom body pain felt by paraplegics can be relieved through virtual reality technology. Neuroscientist Olaf Blanke and his team at Switzerland’s École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, created a bodily illusion that diminished the neuropathic pain that is common in paraplegics.
Through virtual reality, the scientists created an illusion that the subject's legs were being lightly tapped, although the subject was actually being tapped on the back, above the spinal cord lesion. For roughly a minute, the participant also received visual stimuli of dummy legs being tapped. The subject viewed this through the virtual reality headset, seeing them immersively as his or her own legs. The brain translates the tapping on the back onto the legs because the visual stimulus dominates over the tactile one. The effect of receiving the two stimuli was to relieve the pain.
Paraplegics can no longer feel their legs, but they do experience neuropathic pain due to the spinal cord lesion. The pain seems to originate from the legs, although nothing can in actuality be felt below the lesion. The sensation of pain is real but it is completely resistant to drug therapy. The EPFL research may be the key to providing pain relief for this type of pain, whereby a solution comes from the restoration of the sense of touch.
As a result of the study’s conclusions, the research team is currently developing virtual reality technology that automates “visuo-tactile stimulations” for home use by those with spinal cord injury and other chronic pain conditions.