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London - A trick of the mind could relieve the pain of arthritis, claim psychologists.

In a discovery made by accident, people with the condition found a simple computer-generated optical illusion could soothe pain.

Nottingham University academics hope the experiment might one day enable more people to harness their unconscious to tackle ailments.

The technology, called Mirage, helped arthritis patients improve the mobility of their hands by halving the pain they felt in fingers.

A small number of sufferers were asked to place their hands inside a box containing a camera, which then projected the image on to a screen in front of them.

The technology allowed them to see their arthritic fingers being apparently stretched and shrunk.

In fact, someone was gently pushing and pulling their fingers from the other side of the box and the camera created the illusion of huge stretching and shrinking.

In 85 percent of cases it halved the pain.

Mirage was first used as part of a educational project on the way our brains put together what we see and feel happening to our bodies.

Dr Roger Newport, who is leading the research in the School of Psychology, said: “The majority of people who come to these fun events are kids – the illusions really capture their imagination and they think it’s a cool trick.”

But it was one of their grandparents who discovered a healing effect by chance.

Dr Catherine Preston, who is collaborating on the study and is now at Nottingham Trent University, said: “The grandmother wanted to have a go, but warned us to be gentle because of arthritis in her fingers.

“We were giving a practical demonstration of illusory finger stretching when she announced ‘My finger doesn’t hurt any more’ and asked whether she could take the machine home with her.

“We were just stunned – I don’t know who was more surprised, her or us.”

The psychologists then recruited 20 volunteers aged around 70 with osteoarthritis to test out the Mirage technology. All had been diagnosed with arthritic pain in their hands and fingers, and were asked to rate their pain during the illusion.

Many of those tested said they felt less pain in their hands and fingers when the image appeared to show them being stretched, while others got relief when the image showed them shrinking. Some said they were in less pain when stretched and shrunk.

In a third of those taking part, the treatment stopped the pain entirely. It was found the illusion only worked when the painful part of the hands was being manipulated.

Some volunteers said their feet also felt more pain-free during the illusion.

The research team is to publish the findings in a letter to the medical journal Rheumatology.

Dr Newport stressed further studies would be needed to assess the technology and – for the time being – there was little chance of sufferers using the machine at home, as it costs around £10,000 (about R110 000).

Professor Alan Silman, of Arthritis Research UK, said: “Although this research is in the very early stages and further work needs to be done, it’s clearly an area with a lot of future potential.” - Daily Mail