Restoring Meaningful Sensation Non-Invasively
New research is being done, that is intended to restore “natural sensations” to areas of the body that are distant from where surface electrical stimulation (SES) is applied.
In the study published in the Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development, researchers applied stimulation to the ulnar or median nerves at the elbow of 35 participants’ to create “referred sensation” in their hands, with the goal of not creating secondary discomfort elsewhere. In every instance, participants felt sensation in their hands.
The reported sensations ranged from “tingling to itchiness to pressing.” This type of sensation is referred to as paresthesia, and is often used in “confusing” or “scrambling” the pain signals sent from nerves to the brain. Although paresthesia is a known sensation that is utilized in the treatment of phantom limb pain (as well as other chronic pain indications), the ultimate goal of this research is to develop the science to such an extent that more “natural sensations” such as touch and the feeling associated with pressing can be produced appropriately.
According to the study, “Improvements in technology have made an implanted system more feasible, and several groups have been re-evaluating the use of implanted nerve stimulation to communicate sensory information.” However, this research is focused on using external electrodes to relay the sensory information.
“The goal of our research is to develop a non-invasive, home-based therapy for treating phantom limb pain,” says Katharine H. Polasek, assistant professor of engineering at Hope College in Holland, MI.
Future studies will be needed in order to research producing different sensations by altering how the stimulation is applied; however, the research is promising, and hopefully this research will lead to new breakthroughs in the treatment of phantom limb pain, as well as future improvements in prosthesis technology.
Phantom limb pain refers to the sensation of pain that the body perceives as coming from a limb that has been amputated.
There are nearly 2 million people living with limb loss in the United States, with approximately 185,000 amputations in the United States each year. According to Amputee-Coalition.org, “as many as 80 percent of all amputees experience pain in their residual limb or as “phantom pain.”