Judy Lee Baldwin-Mohn hasn’t played soccer since high school. Her leg was amputated below the knee after an infection that stemmed from a bug bite found its way into her bone. Ever since the operation, she has suffered from phantom limb pain, a condition in which amputees feel aches in their former body parts.
“It’s like electrical impulses that can shoot all the way up to my thigh. It throbs, and it burns, and it stings,” she said. Sometimes, she feels a charlie horse in the arch of her former foot; at other times, it’s a terrible itch in her big or little toe.
But now at age 68, the U.S. Air Force veteran is able to get back on the field — virtually — thanks to a new kind of therapy at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System.
When Baldwin-Mohn straps on a virtual reality headset and becomes a soccer player, something remarkable happens. Her phantom limb pain goes away, an effect that she says lasts well after she’s done playing. “My pain has been less frequent and the depth of the pain has decreased tremendously,” she said.
Phantom limb pain is tough to treat for reasons that may be obvious.
“Imagine you don’t have a foot but you feel as if you’ve stepped on a thumbtack. How do you fix that pain? There is no thumbtack. There is no foot,” said David Boe, a researcher who is working with Baldwin-Mohn as part of the virtual reality project.