Scientists Use Illusion to Trick Brain, Cut Osteoarthritis Pain in Half

Apr 21, 2011
Tagged with:

Experts estimate nearly 27 million people in the United States are afflicted with osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis, with 60% of them being women. Two-thirds of the people over age 65 have osteoarthritis and those numbers are expected to climb as baby boomers age. There is currently no cure, so the emphasis is on effective treatment. It can be a major cause of disability and lead to a great amount of pain and stiffness in the joints. Yet good news comes out of The University of Nottingham. By a fluke of fate, researchers discovered a simple illusion can drastically reduce — and sometimes temporarily eliminate arthritic pain in the hand.

Nottingham has unique MIRAGE technology — which takes a real-time video capture image of a hand and uses computer manipulations combined with physically pulling or pushing on the hand to fool the brain into believing the hand is stretching or shrinking.

The discovery was stumbled upon during a public event where kids were to experience some of the body distortion illusions, but a grandmother wanted to try it. Dr. Catherine Preston said, “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 any more!’ and asked whether she could take the machine home with her! We were just stunned — I don’t know who was more surprised, her or us!”

The results, which were published in the latest edition of the journal Rheumatology, showed a marked reduction in pain. On average, the researchers were able to cut the pain in half in 85% of sufferers by tricking the brain into believing that the painful part of the hand was being stretched or shrunk. Some reported greater reduction in pain for stretching, some for shrinking and some for both. The pain reduction only worked when painful parts of the hand were manipulated. Remarkably, stretching or shrinking the painful part of the hand temporarily eliminated pain in one-third of all volunteers and many also reported an increased range of movement.

The Nottingham team are hopeful their finding could be the first step towards new technologies of the future which could assist patients in improving mobility in their hand by reducing the amount of pain they experience while undergoing physiotherapy. Eventually, cheaper technology may allow a low-cost model of the system to be produced which could be small enough for sufferers to keep in their home and offering brief periods of respite from their discomfort.

Dr Roger Newport who is leading the research in the School of Psychology said, “This research is an excellent example of how fundamental research can often produce unexpected and significant results.”

For more information about this research at Nottingham University, contact Dr. Roger Newport.

Author: Tessa