Mirrors – used for years in magic tricks, special effects, and optical illusions. Now they are being used as part of physical therapy. A recent 2017 Chinese study proved that mirror therapy (MT) has a moderate effect in improving arm functionality in stroke patients during rehabilitation when compared to other conventional therapies. Mirrors can also trick the brain to train arm and hand function.
Mirror therapy originated as a new and surprising therapy for patients with amputations to relieve their phantom pain (pain in the arm that is not there anymore). The patient had a mirror placed vertically on a desk in front of them, with the unaffected arm facing the mirror and the amputated limb behind the mirror. When the patient moved his healthy arm, the mirror created the illusion that the amputated one moved. This simple technique was able to trick the brain to reduce the phantom pain for many patients.
Using mirrors for stroke rehabilitation
Since mirror therapy proved to help amputees, researchers decided to test this method to help stroke patients. This simple and low-cost method was first introduced as a therapy for stroke patients in 1999. Mirror therapy for stroke patients works by reflecting the movements of the unaffected hand in a mirror. This method then gives the illusion that the weakened side is the one moving. The mirroring activates neurons in the brain, essentially tricking the mind and hand to function better.
Here is a video that shows the efficacy of mirror therapy for stroke rehabilitation.
After the 1999 breakthrough first study, numerous studies followed supporting the original findings, and this new Chinese study is the latest. Chinese researchers reviewed
eleven studies comparing MT with some other conventional therapies (physical therapy, occupational therapy, passive mobilization of the affected arm, bimanual exercises and so on).
They concluded that mirror therapy has an immediate effect on arm and hand function in stroke patients described as ‘moderate’, and they recommend using mirror therapy in stroke rehabilitation.
A promising therapy
As mentioned before, the Chinese researchers came to that conclusion by reviewing 11 recent scientific studies (published after 2011) with a total of 347 patients. This review established if and what effect mirror therapy has on arm and hand function in stroke patients. The researchers used meta-analysis, which combines the results of multiple related studies into one study. Researchers use this method to increase the certainty of the results. Although the results sound very promising, the reviewed studies were very heterogeneous. Researchers need to conduct a large prospective well-planned study.
Mirror therapy is a simple training method that improves arm and hand functions during stroke rehabilitation. After guidance from a therapist, it could be a useful addition to your standard arm and hand treatment. Therefore, you should discuss mirror therapy with your stroke therapist.
The lead author of this publication is Dr. Zeng from the Postgraduate College, Guizhou Medical University, Guiyang, China.