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Thursday, 31 May, 2001, 23:33 GMT 00:33 UK
Training to beat 'phantom pain'
brain
The brain may hold a "map" of the limbs
Amputees who get pains which feel like they come from the missing limb may get some relief using an innovative training technique.

As many as four out of five people who lose limbs suffer the pains, which may happen as nerves severed by the surgery continue to send occasional pain messages back to the brain.

The brain has not yet learned that the limb is no longer there.

The technique, reported in The Lancet medical journal, aims to actually change the way the brain "maps" the signals it receives.

Five patients took part in a trial in a Berlin hospital.

Electrodes were attached to the stump in an area around one of the main nerves.

Then patients took part in exercises 10 times daily over a two week period, in which they had to work out the frequency or the location of electric shocks passed through the electrodes.

After the two weeks, phantom limb pain had decreased in each of the five patients - and stayed at a lower level even months after the training had ceased.

Brain changes

Imaging of the brain suggested that some reorganisation had taken place during the training procedure.

At the moment, no single totally effective treatment exists for phantom limb pain, although various analgesics and other medications can help in some cases.

Rob Munro, who lost a lower leg following an aircraft accident five years ago, told BBC News Online that many patients had their own strategies for dealing with the discomfort.

He said: "For me it tends to be shooting pains which feel they are coming up from the foot.

"I find that by concentrating on the pain as if it were in my foot, and imagining waggling my toes - even though they are not there - I can relieve it.

"It still happens every day, although for me it is more of a nuisance.

"But anything that can help people with these pains is most welcome."

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See also:

31 May 00 | Health
Feeling lost limbs
07 May 99 | Health
The complex world of pain
11 Jun 99 | Health
Mirror helps beat paralysis
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