Title adapted from:
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?
Feature Image sourced from:
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Dear Pain Matters blog readers,
Up to 90% of all amputees suffer from phantom limb pain (PLP), or more simply, phantom pain.
Mirror therapy is an inexpensive pain treatment option for some patients with phantom pain, complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), pain after stroke and other painful conditions.
Stephen Sumner (aka Mirror Man), an amputee and humanitarian from Vancouver, Canada, was so impressed with the pain-relieving effects of mirror therapy on his phantom pain that he set up his mission called ‘Me and My Mirror’.
STEPHEN SUMNER (‘ME AND MY MIRROR’)
Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
Stephen’s Story, Before Mirror Therapy
Stephen endured a left above-knee amputation after a truck crashed into his scooter in a hit-and-run accident that left him for dead on a quiet country road near Siena, Italy, one balmy evening in 2004.
Using his words, Stephen ‘suffered terribly … suicidally’ from severe PLP for 4 – 5 years thereafter. He used to endure ongoing electrifying shocks that shot up his missing left leg and throughout his body.
Quoting Stephen, it was like having ‘lightning bolts through my foot’ in a leg that no longer existed. His entire body would jolt and spasm uncontrollably, as if he was ‘being spiked with a cattle prod day and night’. Stephen would be reduced to screaming and tears with no sleep at all during these severely painful bouts.
Stephen added, ‘I could have killed myself.’
Stephen’s phantom toes would be ‘stuck’ in an excruciatingly painful and clenched position. The pain ‘was like a vice over the back of my heel. It was like it was being crushed.’ Stephen’s phantom pain felt like ‘crippling electric pulses’ … ‘burning and crushing, but the worst is the itching’.
Stephen stated that his phantom pain was ‘… not in the head, it’s in the limb.’
Stephen’s Story, After Mirror Therapy
Then one day, Stephen read about mirror therapy on-line. The first time he placed a mirror against his left thigh and looked at the reflection of his right leg (where the left leg used to be), he felt immediate relief. Five (5) minutes later, his pain was gone. Stephen did mirror therapy twice daily for 10 minutes at a time. Finally, after 5 weeks, his phantom pain disappeared for good.
Quoting Stephen, mirror therapist:
‘… within … 3 and 5 weeks, the pain … disappeared … my phantom pain had gone away, almost magically …’
‘… 10 minutes per session, 2 sessions per day, 5 weeks, and you’re done for life … If I get some kind of a flare-up, I just whip out the mirror, and I’m good again …’
(Go to the following 10-minute video called The Me & My Mirror Back Story; 2:30 minutes).
Stephen offers mirror therapy to amputees with phantom pain in 3rd world countries including Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Burma, Myanmar, Vietnam, southern part of India, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and the western Sahara region.
Stephen often treats amputees with PLP due to traumatically torn or mutilated limbs resulting from war, landmine blasts, unexploded ordnances (cluster bombs, cluster munitions) and road accidents. Stephen also treats patients who lost their limbs due to severe diabetes and other diseases.
Stephen collaborates with medical experts in the local hospitals, trauma centres, physical rehabilitation centres and prosthetic clinics. Recently, he was at the ‘Jaffna Teaching Hospital’ with Physical Rehabilitation Therapists and Orthopedic Surgeon. He also teaches locals how to make therapeutic mirrors for pain relief.
Stephen uses this simple mantra for mirror therapy:
In Stephen’s words,
‘… You feel immediate relief, but you have to carry on for 4 or 5 weeks. So, my mantra is:
- 2 sessions a day
- 10 minutes per session
- 5 weeks.’
(Global News, 2016)
Stephen uses acrylic mirrors due to their cost-effectiveness, safety, lightweight nature and transportability (i.e. on the back of his beloved bicycle).
According to Stephen, it is often difficult for amputees in Cambodia and other 3rd world countries to open up about their phantom pain. Many amputees with phantom pain are ashamed. They would rather suffer in silence than risk being labelled as ‘outright crazy’ or ‘insane’ for ‘complaining’ about pain in a limb that does not even exist.
Also, the fact that many amputees here are Buddhists raises the topic of karma including what the amputees ‘must have done in a previous life to deserve this fate’.
When Stephen is seen riding around on a bicycle with his prosthesis clearly visible to all, the locals are more likely to empathise and connect with him. When Stephen tells them that he used to suffer from phantom pain, they finally open up about their own phantom pain.
A CAMBODIAN AMPUTEE WITH PHANTOM LIMB PAIN UNDERGOES MIRROR THERAPY
A Cambodian Amputee Named Pov Sopheak
Pov Sopheak (50), a former soldier and security guard in Cambodia, is also an amputee with phantom pain. He traumatically lost his left leg in a landmine explosion in 1990. Pov’s severe phantom pain including sharp pains in his phantom big toe and little toe affected the quality of his life including sleep for 2 decades.
In Pov’s words,
‘[It] feels like my leg is shaking.’
Pov’s life finally turned a corner after meeting Stephen.
With Stephen’s guidance, Pov used the mirror to ‘trick’ his brain into thinking that his left leg was not missing after all, but rather, still very intact. While moving his right leg including wiggling his toe and flexing his foot in front of the mirror, Pov was able to ‘fool’ his brain into thinking that the reflection of his good leg was that of his missing left leg.
This simple yet elegant treatment helped to relax Pov immensely. Furthermore, Pov’s brain was able to imagine and ‘perceive movement’ in his missing left leg again, after decades of ‘immobility’ and ‘non-use’. Mirror therapy was able to jump-start brain circuitry pertaining to his left leg. For Pov (and many others just like him), this was a prerequisite for phantom pain relief.
‘It’s a new sensation. It’s strange but in a good way … I see my leg in the mirror and I feel happy, like my mind is at ease.’
Pov made a commitment to mirror therapy for 4 – 5 weeks in the hope that his phantom pain would lessen with time.
In the absence of incoming signals from both legs (and/or in the presence of abnormal signals coming in from the stump itself), a brain may become chronically stressed. This often leads to phantom pain.
On the other hand, many amputees with phantom pain instantly feel better during mirror therapy. The reflection of the intact limb in the mirror helps to ‘convince’ their brain that it is finally perceiving two (2) normal limbs.
Importantly, many amputees are finally able to ‘move’ their phantom limb for the first time in years, and perhaps decades, during mirror therapy. This can lead to a state of calm and relaxation, together with immediate pain relief.
In Stephen’s words,
‘Looking in the mirror, the brain suddenly enables you to move your phantom foot and do everything the real foot is doing.’
‘The brain just wants to be tricked. It’s dying for release’ (Fitzpatrick, 2012).
SUPPORT FOR STEPHEN’S MISSION
Photo sourced from: http://meandmymirror.org
If you would like to support Stephen’s important mission to deliver mirror therapy and a therapeutic mirror to PLP amputees in 3rd world countries, please go here:
More details are available on Stephen’s website and in his book called Phantom Pain: A Memoire: It’s All in Your Head.
You can also follow Stephen on social media including Twitter and Facebook.
Biking Laos – Mirror Man Cycling Laos
2 Times, 10 Minutes, 4 Weeks (21/1/2013)
SEVERAL QUESTIONS TO PONDER
Several questions to ponder over include:
- What % of amputees are finally pain-free after 4 – 5 weeks of mirror therapy?
- What % of amputees remain pain-free 6 – 12 months after mirror therapy?
- If the benefits are not lasting in some amputees, can mirror therapy be done repeatedly to relieve phantom pain?
- Are left-sided amputees more likely to benefit from mirror therapy than right-sided amputees (or vice versa)? If so, why? If not, why not?
- Is the corpus callosum in the brain involved?
Stephen’s easy-going, can-do attitude as well as his passion and commitment to treat amputees with PLP via mirror therapy have made him a welcome hero in many 3rd world countries.
In his friend’s words,
‘He’s not your regular officious [non-government organisation] guy. He rides up on his bicycle with a smile on his face and a bunch of mirrors.’
In my view, Stephen is one amazing guy with one big heart!
… And I am not the only one who thinks this!
A fiction movie called ‘ Phantom Pain’ (in German, ‘Phantomschmerz’), released in 2009, was completely inspired by Stephen’s early experiences as an amputee.
Blogger, Pain Matters (in WordPress)
Your perception IS your reality.
(1A) Sumner, Stephen. Me and My Mirror.
(1B) Fitzpatrick, Michelle. Mirrors ease Cambodian amputees’ phantom pain. The China Post and AFP (28/2/2012).
(1D) Otis, Daniel. Meet the ‘Mirror Man’ who’s on a mission to help fellow amputees. CTV News (25 December 2018).
(1E) Ross, Amy. Mirror Medicine: A Cure for Phantom Limb Pain? Pacific Rim Magazine.
(1F) Mullen, Dene. The man with the mirror. Southeast Asia Globe (12 July 2013).
(1G) Man in the Mirror. Asia Life (2/2/2012).
(1I) Lazaruk, Susan. Local amputee bikes through Asia helping others who have lost limbs. Vancouver Sun (22 April 2019).
(1M) Boynton, Sean. Vancouver humanitarian promotes therapy for amputees, thanks to gift from Yaletown shooting survivor. Global News (22 April 2019).
(1N) Other articles:
(2A) Me and My Mirror 2018 (6-minute YouTube)
(2B) Mirror-therapy and how it helps amputees. Global News (12 January 2016) (3-minute video)
(2C) Mirror therapy hoping to help amputees with pain. Global News (30 Oct 2014 (a 6-minute video).
(2D) Other videos:
Film (Fiction, in German; Inspired by Stephen Sumner’s Experience)
(3) Emcke, Matthias. Phantom Pain (Original Title: Phantomschmerz) (2009).