Background: Phantom limb and complex regional pain syndrome type 1 (CRPS1) are characterized by changes in cortical processing and organization, perceptual disturbances, and poor response to conventional treatments. Graded motor imagery is effective for a small subset of patients with CRPS1.
Objective: To investigate whether graded motor imagery would reduce pain and disability for a more general CRPS1 population and for people with phantom limb pain.
Methods: Fifty-one patients with phantom limb pain or CRPS1 were randomly allocated to motor imagery, consisting of 2 weeks each of limb laterality recognition, imagined movements, and mirror movements, or to physical therapy and ongoing medical care.
Results: There was a main statistical effect of treatment group, but not diagnostic group, on pain and function. The mean (95% CI) decrease in pain between pre- and post-treatment (100 mm visual analogue scale) was 23.4 mm (16.2 to 30.4 mm) for the motor imagery group and 10.5 mm (1.9 to 19.2 mm) for the control group. Improvement in function was similar and gains were maintained at 6-month follow-up.
Conclusion: Motor imagery reduced pain and disability in these patients with complex regional pain syndrome type I or phantom limb pain, but the mechanism, or mechanisms, of the effect are not clear.