Using Mirrors to Reduce Arthritis Pain

Laura Case and her colleagues at the University of San Diego are building on V.S. Ramanchandran’s work with mirrors and pain relief to see if arthritis patients can benefit from mirror therapy.

Dr. Case spoke yesterday at a Society for Neuroscience press conference.

In mirror therapy, a patient places a healthy hand (or leg or other body part) in front of a mirror. The patient sees the reflection of the healthy body part in place of the other, painful limb.  Past research indicates that a series of mirror therapy sessions can cause pain to subside for long periods of time, something that has thus far been especially beneficial for people with amputations suffering from phantom limb pain.

Dr. Case’s small proof-of-concept study looked at whether eight people with osteo and/or rheumatoid arthritis could benefit from mirror therapy.  Study subjects viewed a reflection of an experimenter’s healthy hand, then mimicked the slow, flexing hand movements of the healthy hand with their arthritic hand for one minute at a time.

“The moving healthy hand creates the illusion that the arthritic hand is moving without pain,” said Dr. Case. She hypothesized that seeing a hand with a greater range of motion might alter the brain’s visual mapping feedback.

The mirror therapy reduced pain 1.5 to 3 points on a 10-point pain scale.

Dr. Case plans to study this therapy with a larger number of subjects. She also plans to look into whether mirror box therapy could have long-term results for people with arthritis.

–Johanna Goldberg

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