The therapeutic trick evolves from a theory. The brain’s image of the body can become distorted. Thus, its ability to sense things and control movement begin to distort. Then, a person may feel pain when they move something — a hand, for example. This theory may help explain such problems as fibromyalgia.
In the most significant health breakthrough in this area, a study looked at patients who had chronic pain in certain regions of the body. They stood in front of a mirror and did normal stretches. More than half of them reported that they had significant pain relief during and after this exercise. By looking at the mirror reflection, the normal pain-free limb is in place where your brain thought the painful limb was. Thus, your brain is convinced that everything is okay. Its pain sensors go away.
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Researchers believe the system that the mirror is tricking is the same one responsible when you run down stairs and miss the last step. You get a jolt of surprise as the brain’s prediction is proven wrong. (If you think about it, much of our movements are based on predictions of what is to come.) Researchers think that stair “surprise” is similar to unexplained pain. If their theory is true, it could change the way we treat chronic pain.
A second study found that people could create sensations in one limb by staring at the reflection of the other limb using a mirror. Forty-one people sat in front of a mirror, facing to the side so they could only see one side of their body. First, they moved their arms in the same direction at the same time. Then they moved them in opposite directions. The whole while looking in the mirror at one arm’s reflection.
In an amazing 20 seconds, the majority of patients said they felt a sensation in the arm they couldn’t see in the mirror. But that sensation was different than the one they felt in the arm they could see in the mirror. The feeling was numbness, temperature changes, the “pins and needles” feeling, aching or pain. This study serves as proof that pain can result simply from the brain not understanding what it sees with respect to what it feels.
This is pretty amazing stuff. It is easily applied at home. If you have unusual, unexplained pain in an arm or leg, get in front of a mirror and stare at your other arm or leg. Your confused brain might think everything’s okay, and the painful warning mechanism gets turned off. Now that is some natural pain relief.