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Phantom Limb Pain Therapy Developed at UCSD Now Used at Walter Reed

When I first read an article by Dr. Jack Tsao (on the Department of Defense's Armed with Science website) about his work at Walter Reed Army Medical Center treating amputees who suffer from phantom limb pain with something called mirror therapy, I felt a sense of déjà vu. I remembered watching a NOVA episode about a decade ago that documented the creation of this very therapy by the world-renowned neuroscientist Dr. V.S. Ramachandran of U.C. San Diego. Ramachandran has been called both the Sherlock Holmes and the Marco Polo of neuroscience.

Phantom limb pain is very common among servicemembers who've lost a limb to amputation. According to Tsao, who heads up the Traumatic Brain Injury programs at the U.S. Bureau of Navy Medicine and Surgery, phantom limb pain affects 90 percent of amputees:

Often an amputee begins to experience this phenomenon immediately after surgery; this is typically followed by a gradual fading of the limb from memory. Patients frequently report that this phantom limb is stuck in an uncomfortable position or has the sensation of pain, electric shocks, or itching. There are an infinite variety of sensations associated with PLP, from merely uncomfortable to debilitating, but they have one thing in common: pharmacologic therapies are generally ineffectual.

Here's the NOVA episode about Dr. Ramachandran's discovery of mirror therapy as a treatment for phantom limb pain. The focus on mirror therapy starts around 3:30. The rest of the episode is incredibly fascinating, too.