Public Release: 

Temple physician testing mirror therapy in injured combat veterans

Temple University Health System

(Philadelphia, PA) - Can a simple mirror help lessen the pain experienced by combat veterans with complex orthopedic injuries or nerve damage to the limbs? That is the premise behind a new research study being conducted by a Temple University School of Medicine (TUSM) physician.

Referred to as "mirror therapy," this rehabilitative technique uses a common mirror to display a reflection of the patient's healthy arm or leg where the injured limb would be. When the patient moves his or her healthy limb, the mirror provides the optical illusion that the injured limb is moving at the same time. For reasons not entirely understood, this seems to trick the brain into believing that the injured limb is functioning normally. This in turn can reduce pain and spasms in the injured limb.

"Mirror therapy has been shown to relieve phantom pain in amputees, but this pilot study could prompt doctors to consider this kind of therapy for patients with upper extremity injuries," says Eric Altschuler, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at TUSM and an active mirror therapy researcher.

Dr. Altschuler's pilot study will focus in on combat veterans with complex orthopedic and peripheral nerve injuries. Study patients will have significant injuries to two or more joints, muscles, or nerves in the same limb, as well as ongoing pain or discomfort that makes it hard for them to go about their daily lives.

The treatment regimen will involve 15 to 30 minutes of mirror therapy five to six days a week. Some therapy will take place at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and some can be done at home by the patients themselves. Dr. Altschuler and his team will track the veterans' progress throughout the eight-week study to see if there is a reduction in pain and other symptoms.

Dr. Altschuler suspects that, much like amputees, people with severe injuries may be able to regain mobility and reduce pain, spasms and stiffness just by seeing their healthy limb move in the mirror's reflection.

Dr. Altschuler hopes to apply what he learns in this study to the civilian population.

"So much of what we've learned has come from studies of injured soldiers and veterans," he said. "The same should hold true for this study. If mirror therapy is beneficial for these veterans, that would prompt larger studies into this treatment, and for broader populations."

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Dr. Altschuler's research is funded by the Milbank Veterans Rehabilitation grant from the Foundation for Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation.

About Temple Health

Temple University Health System (TUHS) is a $1.6 billion academic health system dedicated to providing access to quality patient care and supporting excellence in medical education and research. The Health System consists of Temple University Hospital (TUH), ranked among the "Best Hospitals" in the region by U.S. News & World Report; TUH-Episcopal Campus; TUH-Northeastern Campus; Fox Chase Cancer Center, an NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center; Jeanes Hospital, a community-based hospital offering medical, surgical and emergency services; Temple Transport Team, a ground and air-ambulance company; and Temple Physicians, Inc., a network of community-based specialty and primary-care physician practices. TUHS is affiliated with Temple University School of Medicine.

Temple University School of Medicine (TUSM), established in 1901, is one of the nation's leading medical schools. Each year, the School of Medicine educates approximately 840 medical students and 140 graduate students. Based on its level of funding from the National Institutes of Health, Temple University School of Medicine is the second-highest ranked medical school in Philadelphia and the third-highest in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. According to U.S. News & World Report, TUSM is among the top 10 most applied-to medical schools in the nation.

Temple Health refers to the health, education and research activities carried out by the affiliates of Temple University Health System (TUHS) and by Temple University School of Medicine. TUHS neither provides nor controls the provision of health care. All health care is provided by its member organizations or independent health care providers affiliated with TUHS member organizations. Each TUHS member organization is owned and operated pursuant to its governing documents.

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