Pain Relief In The News: Can Visual Illusion Relieve Knee Pain?

Researchers at UniSA's Body in Mind Research Group have found people suffering osteoarthritis in the knees reported reduced pain when exposed to visual illusions that altered the size of their knees. The research combined visual illusions and touch, with participants reporting up to a 40 percent decrease in pain when presented with an illusion of the knee and lower leg elongated, says Dr. Tasha Stanton, UniSA researcher and NHMRC Career Development Fellow. "We also found that the pain reduction was optimal when the illusion was repeated numerous times - that is, its analgesic effect was cumulative," she said.

The study of 12 participants - published in the journal Peer J - focused on people over 50 years of age with knee pain, and a clinical diagnosis of osteoarthritis. The research provides "proof of concept" support that visual illusions can play a powerful role in reducing pain. "We have shown that pain is reduced significantly when a visual stimulus, in this case a smaller or an elongated joint, is provided, but not only that, when exposed to that illusion repeatedly, pain decreases even further," Stanton says.

"It seems that seeing is believing, and by understanding the neurological processes at work we may be able to ease pain more effectively for people with chronic conditions, reduce their reliance on medications and find alternative physical therapies to help manage conditions like osteoarthritis,” Stanton continued. “This research adds to a growing body of evidence that the pain experienced in osteoarthritis is not just about damage to the joint. There are other factors at play and the more we understand about these natural mechanisms for reducing pain and how they are triggered, the more opportunity we have to develop a range of treatments to manage chronic conditions."

Eye Pain

A study – published in the American Journal of Physiology—Cell Physiology, suggests that a boost of electrical activity in the eye’s mucous membranes may lead to new treatments for the painful condition known as dry eye. Dry eye is a common condition often caused by a disruption in the eye’s fluid balance. A long-term imbalance of too much salt and not enough water in the thick layer of fluid in the eye can lead to inflammation and cell damage that may become irreversible. Extremely fast electrical signals carry messages throughout the body, telling it how to function. This process plays a role in how the body responds to various stimuli.  

Little is known about how the eye’s surface adapts to the fluid imbalance seen in dry eye. Donald G. Puro, MD, Ph.D., from the University of Michigan, studied the bioelectrical responses of cells in the mucous membranes that line the eyelids. Goblet cells release a protein called mucin, the basis of mucous, which slows down the evaporation of tears and helps maintain the tear film’s balance. In a rat model of dry eye, Puro found that electrical activity in the goblet cells increases as hyperosmolarity rises in the tear film, which in turn allows the cells to produce more mucin.

This voltage boost is short-lived. If the salt-to-water ratio of the tear film remains unbalanced in the long-term, the goblet cells’ electrical activity returns to normal levels without producing additional mucin. “Continued progress in elucidating the bioelectric mechanisms by which the ocular surface responds to dryness and hyperosmolarity should provide novel strategies for improving the uncomfortable sight-impairing condition of dry eye,” Puro said.

Back Pain

A recent study from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center examined what may cause chronic back pain in runners - and the exercises to help prevent it. "Working on a six-pack and trying to become a better runner is definitely not the same thing,” says study leader Ajit Chaudhari, associate professor of physical therapy and biomedical engineering at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “If you look at great runners, they don't typically have a six-pack but their muscles are very fit. Static exercises that force you to fire your core and hold your body in place are what's really going to make you a better runner."

The study, published in the Journal of Biomechanics, suggests that runners with weak deep core muscles are at higher risk of developing low back pain. Unfortunately, most people's deep core muscles aren't nearly as strong as they should be. To examine the role of the superficial and deep core muscles, researchers used motion detection technology and force-measuring floor plates to estimate muscle movements during activity. "We measured the dimensions of runners' bodies and how they moved to create a computer model that's specific to that person,” Chaudhari said. “That allows us to examine how every bone moves and how much pressure is put on each joint. We can then use that simulation to virtually 'turn off' certain muscles and observe how the rest of the body compensates."

The findings revealed that weak deep core muscles force more superficial muscles like the abs to work harder and reach fatigue faster. When those superficial muscles are doing the work the deep core should be doing, there are often painful consequences. "When your deep core is weak, your body is able to compensate in a way that allows you to essentially run the same way," Chaudhari said. "But that increases the load on your spine in a way that may lead to low back pain."

It's common for even well-conditioned athletes to neglect their deep core, experts says, and there is a lot of misinformation online and in fitness magazines about core strength. Traditional ab exercises with a large range of motion, such as sit-ups or back extensions, will not give you the strong core needed to be a better runner. Instead, exercises such as planks that focus on stabilizing the core, especially on unstable surfaces, are what's really going to make you a better runner.

Travel Pain

Travel by automobile or airplane for hours upon hours can lead to back pain and stiff, sore legs. You can plan for a pain-free travel experience by making small changes that can make a big difference in how you feel. "Prolonged sitting causes a buildup of pressure in the blood vessels in your lower legs, which causes soreness," says Scott Bautch, DC, president of the American Chiropractic Association Council on Occupational Health. “Simple moves, such as stretching or contracting and relaxing your muscles, can increase blood flow. Treat travel like an athletic event. Warm up before getting into a car or on the plane, and cool down once you reach your destination. Taking a short, brisk walk to stretch your hamstring and calf muscles before and after a long trip can help prevent problems.”

Travel Relief By Car And Plane

Here’s some additional tips for healthier travel pain relief.

You can progress through a series of muscle stretches when driving: open your toes as wide as you can, and count to 10. Count to five while you tighten your calf muscles, then your thigh muscles, then your gluteal muscles. Roll your shoulders forward and back. Always make sure to put safety first and keep your hands on the steering wheel and your eyes on the road. Adjust the seat so you are as close to the steering wheel as comfortably possible.

You can take rest breaks for the opportunity to move around to refresh yourself. Never underestimate the potential consequences of fatigue to yourself, your passengers and other drivers. Do not grip the steering wheel. Instead, alternate tightening and loosening your grip occasionally to improve hand circulation and decrease muscle fatigue in the arms, wrists and hands.

Stand up straight and feel the normal "S" curve of your spine. To prevent back pain, use rolled-up pillows or blankets to maintain that curve when you sit in your seat. Check all bags heavier than five to 10 percent of your body weight. Overhead lifting of any significant amount of weight should be avoided to reduce the risk of pain in the lower back or neck.

While seated, vary your position occasionally to improve circulation and avoid leg cramps. When pushing your belongings under the seat, do not force the object with an awkward motion using your legs, feet or arms. This may cause muscle strain or spasms in the upper thighs and lower back muscles.


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