Groundbreaking technology helping veterans who’ve lost limbs

In a virtual world of a stadium, a sitting man and soccer balls, each kick comes for a purpose: easing pain for Judy Baldwin-Moon. She’s in the final stretch of trying a new therapy at VA Puget Sound for the pain left after losing part of her right leg. “The first time you do it it’s like ‘oh my goodness,’ it’s almost like a 3D camera, you can see all the shapes but yet you know you’re not really there, but you are there when you’re playing the game,” Baldwin-Moon shared. The “game” begins with the patient putting a sensor on their limb and a virtual reality helmet on their head. Inside the virtual world, Baldwin-Moon tries to “kick” a soccer ball through a goal.

The therapy was developed by David Boe, a research specialist at the VA Puget Sound. He was looking for a better way to treat phantom limb pain. “I saw how difficult it was to treat it and how something like that could really dictate your life.”

Baldwin-Moon describes the pain: “It stabs, it throbs, it shoots, it burns, it’s got pins and needles in it.” For Baldwin-Moon, it began the day her leg was amputated after a staph infection got into the bone. “It was happening every day, morning, noon, night time and bedtime.” The cause of the condition is still a bit of the mystery, says Boe, “Nobody knows is the short answer. The slightly less short answer is that after amputation there’s a region in your brain that now no longer has anything to do.” Medication or other treatments can address the symptoms for some, but not for people like Baldwin-Moon, who has found relief in the game. “It seems to click in my head because when I’m playing, I don’t have pain.” Boe has noticed the difference, “For Judy specifically, when we started she was at a pain level of 10 out of 10 and now she’s reporting a 4 out of 10.”

Boe based the high-tech treatment on something called “Mirror Box Therapy,” “Essentially it’s reflecting your good limb in the mirror where your phantom limb would be and just the visual experience of seeing your limb is therapeutic.” But in the virtual word, Baldwin-Moon can not only see her leg and kick the ball, but as the improves, she’ll also be able to feel her foot connect to the ball. “It’s so effective, it really is, and I would never have thought this possible.” Boe explains, “We’re bringing her attention to the painful area basically to show ‘hey, you have a normal limb, it’s not painful, it’s doing exactly what you want it to do, it’s right there, it’s present and it’s real.’”

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