Mirror therapy for phantom pain following amputation

Phantom pain: a complicated diagnosis. The phenomenon is unclear, the cause unknown and treatments uncertain. However, there is one treatment that has been shown to work well for many amputees with phantom pain: mirror therapy. But what exactly is it? And more importantly, does it really help to reduce phantom pain?

A whopping 80% of all amputees experience phantom pain. For some, this may be a problem that occurs occasionally, while others are plagued by this every second of their lives.

Phantom pain... What is that again?

Although the exact cause of phantom pain is unknown, it appears to be the result of confusion after an amputation between the nerves in the amputated limb and the brain. After the amputation, the brain no longer receives signals from the nerves in the amputated limb. This makes that part of the brain idle. The nerves in your brain can resolve this "boredom" by displaying activity. As a result, you start feeling things that are not there, such as heat or tingling. Do you experience pain? We call this phantom pain. 

You can read more about phantom pain in this article: Everything you need to know about phantom pain and stump pain.

What exactly is mirror therapy?

Mirror therapy is actually a simple way to trick your brain. With mirror therapy, you do exercises next to a mirror. That mirror is placed so that your amputated limb is not visible. You move your healthy and amputated limbs synchronously while looking in the mirror.   

The reflection makes it seem as if your amputated limb is still whole and functioning. This tells your brain: ‘Hey, nothing’s wrong, my limb is still there and moving!’ The brain area associated with your amputated limb is activated as a result. It thinks that it’s business as usual and no longer demonstrates spontaneous activity. The "error" in your brain due to the amputation is reversed. This leads to a decrease in the pain.

Who is eligible for mirror therapy?

Mirror therapy is suitable for those with chronic pain caused by "crossed wires" in the brain, i.e. for those who experience phantom pain. 

Due to the nature of the therapy, it is highly suitable for those with an amputation on one side. But research has shown that mirror therapy can also help those with a double amputation. 

Is mirror therapy right for me?

Do you suffer from phantom pain? Our first and most important piece of advice is to ask for help! All too often, we hear that people are ashamed about their pain. They are afraid that no one will believe them. There is no need to fear this because your pain is very much real. So, don’t hesitate to talk about your phantom pain, so that you and your doctor or therapist can find a treatment that’s right for you.