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Eerie Imaging Illusion Reduces Arthritis Pain

April 15, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Musculoskeletal Radiology
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Imaging of an illusory sort can reduce or even temporarily eliminate arthritic pain in the hand. The therapy involves a computer-created optical illusion that apparently shows the arthritis sufferer’s finger being stretched or squashed.

Really.

A group of researchers at The University of Nottingham in England discovered the phenomenon by accident. At the university’s annual Community Open Day last spring, the researchers let members of the public play with the body distortion illusion equipment.

The lab calls the technology MIRAGE. You put your hand into a box containing a camera, and the image of the hand appears on a screen in front of you. A researcher on the other side of the screen reaches into the box, pulls or pushes on a finger, and on the screen the finger appears to stretch or shrink.

Most of the time, the device is used to explore the way the brain puts together what we see and what we feel. During the Open Day, MIRAGE was just for entertainment—the researchers thought.

“The majority of people who come to these fun events are kids,” said Roger Newport, PhD, the leader of the research in the School of Psychology, as quoted in a university news release (which includes a video showing the technology’s weird optical effects). “The illusions really capture their imagination, and they think it’s a cool trick and can become a bit obsessed with working out how we do it.”

Catherine Preston, PhD, formerly at the University of Nottingham and now at Nottingham Trent University, collaborated with Dr. Newport on a letter to the journal Rheumatology describing their research. It was published online March 29. Dr. Preston described what happened this way:

During the course of the day, 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. 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.

Equally stunning were the results of experiments on 20 volunteers, average age 70, who suffered from osteoarthritis in the hands or fingers. Physically pushing or pulling on the painful parts of the hands resulted in 85 percent of the subjects saying their pain had been cut in half. The effect occurred only when the patients experienced the optical illusions at the same time as the physical manipulation; the manipulation alone did not affect reported pain.

One third of the volunteers reported that the pain temporarily disappeared entirely. Many volunteers also reported increased range of motion.

The researchers hope their findings lead to new physiotherapy technologies—eventually including a device for temporary relief of arthritis pain that can indeed be taken home.

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