Phantom Limbs and Mirror Therapy

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As U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan winds down, we can take a closer look at the legacy of physical and emotional damage these conflicts will leave. As of November 3rd,, 2011, the Department of Defense lists about 6,000 military personnel involved in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom as killed in action, and roughly 50,000 as wounded in action. Many of the injured suffer from debilitating conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and severe brain damage, while still others have lost entire limbs.


As more amputee veterans returned from combat zones, they began reporting a bizarre phenomenon: they felt discomfort or pain--in a limb that no longer existed. This condition, known as phantom pain, afflicts between 50 and 80 percent of amputees, and can last for weeks, months, or even years. To relieve this pain, psychologist Vilanayur Ramachandran (Lilienfeld) developed a treatment for phantom limb pain called the mirror box, in which a patient placed the intact version of their missing limb in a mirrored box. This box creates the illusion that the patient's missing limb is there, and the patient can then perform exercises to ease their phantom pain.


The mirror box treatment has proved effective for smaller body parts, but tougher for larger limbs. At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, neurologists like Dr. Jack Tsao have devised a similar technique that Tsao calls "mirror therapy". This treatment involves placing a mirror between the missing and intact limbs, and watching the intact limb perform stretches and exercises. Dr. Tsao believes that this treatment brings relief by reducing excess brain activity, which creates the phantom limb illusion, or by erasing negative memories of the missing limb. This method has been very successful for treating lower limb injuries, and according to both Tsao and Ramachandran, mirror therapy can sometimes remove phantom pain permanently.


However, I'm still curious about the uses of mirror therapy. Is this treatment used in conventional hospitals as well? Has it been used in settings outside of medicine? What other injuries could be treated with techniques like mirror therapy?

Here's the link to the video that inspired this post:

(n.d.). Casualty list for current military operations. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Defense website:

Lilienfeld, Scott. Pyschology - From Inquiry to Understanding. Custom Edition for the University of Minnesota. Boston, MA: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2010. Print.

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This page contains a single entry by alper053 published on November 6, 2011 7:03 PM.

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