Healthbeat Report: Tricking the Mind with Mirrors

June 30, 2011 (CHICAGO)

"Of all the things you don't expect to go in and have a baby and have an arm injury," said Gayeski.

Gayeski says even after weeks of conventional therapy her progress was slow.

And then a therapist at Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago rolled up a mirror and suggested they give something else a try.

"One of the tools we have in the tool box is mirror therapy, which is visual imagery," said Eileen Brusso, occupational therapist, Swedish Covenant Hospital.

The idea is to trick the brain into thinking the injured limb is moving. Gayeski says her arm responded immediately.

"I screamed. I was amazed because I could lift my arm over my head, because up until that point I had never done that without help," said Gayeski.

Although doctors are unsure what exactly causes this effect, they suspect the visual illusion helps the brain rewire itself.

"Grouping of neurons within the area of the brain that is representing the injured part and so over time that regrouping or reorganization changes the image that the brain has about the non moving or injured limb," said Dr. Ketki Modi, physiatrist, Swedish Covenant Hospital.

For most people this technique is a slow process, but it can work as a compliment to other therapies, and sometimes gets results when other treatments have failed.

ABC7 was there to watch as Mari Saiki had a breakthrough. As she watched the mirror image, it appeared as if her left hand was doing the movements flawlessly. In reality, the left hand was behind the mirror. It ws also attempting the exercise, maybe not as well as her brain thinks, but it was moving and doing things she hasn't been capable of since her fracture and surgery months ago.

"All of a sudden I am like, 'oh my God, I'm moving more,'" said Saiki. "It has helped tremendously."

Mirror therapy has been around for years. It's better known for helping people overcome pain following an amputation. Smaller studies are also confirming its success for stroke patients with partial paralysis. And while there's been a bit of a mystique around it, individual success stories have occupational therapists anxious to apply it in new ways for other conditions affecting the hands, arms legs and feet.

"It is fascinating, and we just need more studies and we need better explanations, and I think more sophisticated control studies would be helpful," said Dr. Modi.

Kim Gayeski has made so much progress she's no longer using a mirror. Her most rewarding workouts are now with her family.

What's so appealing about the therapy is that it does not require fancy equipment. Any mirror big enough to hide the injured limb will do. A therapist's guidance is important at the beginning, but patients can then do a lot of the work at home. Doctors stress it's not a miracle cure but an alternative worth considering.

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