When you look in the mirror, what you see is exactly what it reflects. When you stand in front of it, you see your reflection, showing exactly just what you are.
Let alone the popular fairy tale line, “Mirror, mirror on the wall…” In the real world, these objects certainly don’t lie.
Or do they?
Whilst mirrors show the exact reflection of anything, they can also trick our brain.
No, we’re not talking about the distorted mirrors you see in some museums.
Let’s say, if you put your left hand behind a mirror and your right hand in front, it can convince your brain that the reflection of your right hand is your actual left hand.
When you move your right hand, your brain tricks you that your left hand is moving too, even though it isn’t.
For patients in pain, mirrors are being used for rehabilitation. This is called mirror therapy.
What is Mirror Therapy?
Mirror therapy involves the use of, you guessed it right — mirror.
It creates a reflection of your healthy functioning arm in place of your affected arm. The reflection lets you think that the unaffected arm is moving normally.
Well, maybe ‘tricking your brain’ isn’t the right phrase for it. You’re too smart to fall for something like that. But the illusion helps rewire your brain.
In a mirror therapy, the mirror is placed on a table facing your normally functioning arm. Now it takes the place of your affected arm. And then you practice minutes of arm, wrist or finger exercises. As your functioning arm exercises, the mirror lets your brain rewire and improve your motor skills.
The reflection of the healthy limb helps reorganise and integrate the mismatch between proprioception and visual feedback of the less functional limb.
This method exploits the brain’s preference to prioritise visual feedback over proprioceptive feedback of the limb position.
Possibly through the effect on the ‘mirror neuron system,’ mirror therapy can increase cortical and spinal motor excitability. Twenty percent of the neurons in the brain are mirror neurons. If you can determine what’s right from your left, then it’s all thanks to these amazing little guys.
When using the mirror, these neurons are activated and do their part in recovering your affected limb. Scientists believed that observing movements stimulates the motor processes.
In a 2017 study by Adriann Louw et al, patients with shoulder pain sit next to a full-length mirror with their affected arm behind the mirror and out of view. They raised their normal functioning arm up and down 10 times whilst the mirror provides the illusion they were moving their other arm.
What’s even more amazing is that after just 3 minutes of mirror therapy improved the patients’ range of motion in their affected arm by 14.5 degrees.
Who knew mirrors can be an effective tool for recovery? For people with chronic pain who weren’t able to respond to other invention, mirror therapy can be an effective option. The fact that they can help change the way people process sensory information is important to reduce pain, enhance function and improve quality of life.
Now, before completely relying on mirror therapy, keep in mind that the study has some limitations and require further research.
Mirrors may not be completely honest in such cases, but in rehab settings, it is for a good cause!
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Kim SY, Kim YY. Mirror Therapy for Phantom Limb Pain. The Korean Journal of Pain. 2012;25(4):272-274. doi:10.3344/kjp.2012.25.4.272.
Diers, M; Christmann, C; Koeppe, C; Ruf, M; Flor, H (2010), “Mirrored, imagined, and executed movements differentially activate sensorimotor cortex in amputees with and without phantom limb pain”, PAIN 149 (2): 296–304, doi:10.1016/j.pain.2010.02.020
Immediate Effects of Mirror Therapy in Patients With Shoulder Pain and Decreased Range of Motion Louw A., Puentedura E.J., Reese D., Parker P., Miller T., Mintken P.E. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. (2017);98(10): 1941-1947.