Simple illusion significantly reduces arthritic hand pain

Nottingham Trent University academics have shown that a simple illusion can significantly reduce — and in some cases even temporarily eradicate — arthritic pain in the hand.

By tricking the brains of 20 volunteers with an average age of 70 that had all been all clinically diagnosed with arthritic pain in the hands and/or fingers into believing that the painful part of the hand was being stretched or shrunk, researchers were able to halve the pain felt by 85 per cent.

To do so, they used the university’s unique MIRAGE technology, which captures a real-time video image of a hand and uses computer manipulations combined with physically pulling or pushing on the hand to fool the brain.

Remarkably, stretching or shrinking the painful part of the hand temporarily eliminated pain in one-third of all volunteers. Many volunteers also reported an increased range of movement.

Osteoarthritis is a debilitating and painful inflammatory condition that affects the joints and is one of the most common arthritic conditions. Around one million people consult their GPs about the condition every year — mostly people over the age of 50 who are more prone to developing the disease.

There is currently no cure for osteoarthritis but the symptoms can be managed by a range of treatments including painkillers and physiotherapy — although pain can be a barrier to sufferers trying to exercise and keep joints mobile.

The Nottingham team is hopeful that its discovery could be the first step towards deploying new technologies for physiotherapy, allowing health professionals to reduce the pain for sufferers while exercising their joints.

Eventually, cheaper technology may allow a low-cost model of the system to be produced that could be small enough for sufferers to keep in their homes and that could offer brief periods of respite from their discomfort.

Dr Roger Newport, who is leading the research in Nottingham University’s School of Psychology, stressed that the work is at a very early stage and that further studies would be needed to further assess the effectiveness of the technology in pain reduction. To this end, the researchers have recently been successful in securing a £23,000 Serendipity Grant from the Dunhill Medical Trust.