A serendipitous discovery by academics at The University of Nottingham has shown that a simple illusion can significantly reduce — and in some cases even temporarily eradicate — arthritic pain in the hand. By tricking the brain into believing that the painful part of the hand is being stretched or shrunk, the researchers were able to halve the pain felt by 85 per cent of sufferers they tested. Included in this report is a video demonstration of this illusion.
The research could point to 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.
The Nottingham team stumbled on its finding completely by chance during the University’s Community Open Day in April last year.
As part of the event they invited members of the public to experience some of the body distortion illusions they use as part of their every day research using Nottingham’s 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.
Up until now, the technology has been used for fundamental research into body representation — the way in which our brain puts together what we see and what we feel.
Dr. Roger Newport who is leading the research in the School of Psychology said: “The majority of people who come to these fun events are kids — the illusions really capture their imagination and they think it’s a cool trick and can become a bit obsessed with working out how we do it.”
Dr. Catherine Preston, who is now at Nottingham Trent University and collaborated on the study, added: “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!”
To capitalise on their lucky discovery, the team immediately contacted a local osteoarthritis support group and asked them to take part in a series of tests to confirm the effectiveness of MIRAGE for pain relief.
The study attracted 20 volunteers with an average age of 70, who were all clinically-diagnosed with arthritic pain in the hands and/or fingers and none medically managing their pain on the day by anything stronger than paracetamol. Before starting the test they were asked to rate their pain on a 21-point scale, with 0 indicating no pain and 20 representing the m