THURSDAY, Dec. 1, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Amputees who experience what is known as phantom limb pain may benefit from playing a virtual reality game that simulates the movement of missing limbs, a small study suggests.

"Phantom limb pain is a difficult condition to treat that can seriously hinder patients' quality of life," said study lead author Max Ortiz Catalan. He is an assistant professor at Sweden's Chalmers University of Technology.

Phantom limb pain occurs when amputees feel painful sensations that appear to be coming from limbs that no longer exist. In about one-third of cases, the pain can lead to poor mental health and worsening disability, the study authors noted.

"The results from our study suggest that it may be useful to 'exercise' the phantom limb," Catalan explained. "Our treatment offers an engaging way to do this while also providing a non-invasive and non-pharmacological treatment, which was found to reduce chronic pain with no observed side effects."

Catalan added that the findings "now need to be confirmed in a large randomized clinical trial."

Researchers believe that phantom limb pain appears when the brain fails to adjust properly to the amputation of a limb. There are some treatments for the condition -- including "mirror therapy" -- designed to adjust the workings of the brain, but they don't work for all patients.

In the new study, researchers created virtual limbs for 14 arm amputees via a computer screen and then allowed them to drive a virtual race car. The amputations occurred between two and 36 years ago. The study participants hadn't had success with other treatments.

The researchers asked the participants about their phantom limb pain after the new treatment and found that pain intensity and frequency fell by one-third to one-half. The participants also reported less impact from pain on their day-to-day activities and their sleep.

The study authors said they still need to understand whether the improvements are due to a placebo effect. In addition, they noted that the treatment's design may prevent it from helping all amputees with phantom limb pain.

The study was published Dec. 1 in The Lancet.

More information

For more on phantom limb pain, visit the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.