Our brain processes how we experience pain. This results from the integration of mind and body connections.
In short, pathways exist between our brain and limbs (in addition to all our other body systems) and vice versa that provide crucial information for our daily functions, such as movement tasks, threat perception, pain experiences, etc. As a result, if the brain or one of these pathways are injured or altered, we can experience pain and/or lack of function.
BUT, did you know that it is possible to trick the brain into believing what it sees? Enter: Mirror Therapy (MT). This technique can dupe the brain and help restore limb function in those experiencing neuropathic pain (pain caused by damage or alteration to the nervous system; usually described as shooting or burning pain).
MT was first proposed by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran to help alleviate phantom limb pain (a condition in which patients feel they still have pain in a limb even after it’s been amputated) and has since gained popularity and been utilized for individuals suffering from other painful conditions, such as post-stroke and complex regional pain syndrome (those who experience excess and prolonged pain after an injury to an arm or leg).
MT involves placing an affected limb behind a mirror, which hides it and creates a reflection of the opposing unaffected limb. The individual then watches the reflection of their intact limb in the mirror, which creates a visual illusion or “tricks” the brain into thinking that both limbs are moving together without pain. As a result MT exploits the brain’s preference to prioritize visual feedback concerning limb position and helps the brain perceive that pain-free movement in the affected (unseen) limb is occurring.
For example, if your left hand use has been limited because of a stroke you would put it behind the mirror and your right, unaffected, hand would be placed in front of you so that you see its reflection in the mirror. Now you can trick your brain into believing that the reflection you see of the right hand is indeed your left hand. You are now exercising your left hand in your brain, especially if you start to move your right hand.
Repetition is key if MT is to be beneficial in an individual’s rehabilitation program. When someone loses the ability to move a body part fully or without pain due to damage, the pathways between the limb area and the brain need to be repopulated with healthy connections to regain full, pain free movement. This is why consistent and repetitive practice is so important! It encourages neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to regenerate and reestablish connections.
Think of it like growing a garden: seeds are planted and require watering on a regular basis. As those seeds grow into seedlings they still require water to grow and flourish into plants. Even thereafter the plant requires water every so often to stay healthy. The brain is similar, but instead of water, it needs a constant reminder of how to do things to strengthen the pathways between the brain and limb (and vice versa). The parameters for MT will depend on the individual’s specific condition. Usually MT should be performed for 30 minutes per day (either one long session or two 15 minute sessions), five days per week, for four to six weeks.
Like all good tools and rehabilitation programs, MT should be used in adjunct to other therapies; doing just MT alone isn’t necessarily effective. MT should be paired with other hands-on techniques, stretching, strengthening and/or other graded motor imagery techniques. If you think Mirror Therapy may be a good fit for pain you are experiencing, talk to your healthcare provider or reach out to me by email/phone, and we can discuss your particular case.
If you would like more information with regards to the research supporting the above, please feel free to contact me.
For more information or to book an appointment call 705-380-3312 or visit the website. Surge Physiotherapy is located at 33 King William Street, Suite 204, in Huntsville. Office hours are flexible with evening appointments available (three times per week). Email: email@example.com.
Stephanie Bourbeau is a bilingual, Registered Physiotherapist with the College of Physiotherapist of Ontario and the Canadian Physiotherapy Association who is committed to providing a hands on, personalized approach to physiotherapy.
Stephanie, a native to the Huntsville community, developed a passion for health and wellness during her youth while competing in cross-country running, nordic skiing, and track and field. Stephanie has always had a strong caring nature and fell in love with the physiotherapy profession while volunteering at a physiotherapy clinic during high school and university.
Stephanie continued to build on her passion for health care by attending McGill University and completing her Bachelors of Science in Kinesiology. During her Masters in Health Science of Physiotherapy, completed at the University of Ottawa, she completed internships in orthopaedic clinics, hospitals, home care, and neurology centres.