The primary aim of sensory training is to help your body become more tolerant of touch and movement, and to increase comfort.
Originally, the idea was that experiencing a touch or movement repeatedly would help your body adapt (a process called "habituation").
In this original method, either you would touch different things, or a therapist or family member would apply touch using various objects like feathers, sponges, or massagers.
A new method emerged in the early 2000s that requires your active participation to identify sensations.
In this new approach, you are not just a passive receiver but an active participant in trying to interpret the sensations.
For example, you might close your eyes and try to:
In this approach, it's not just touch; it's interaction, it's mental processing, it's you playing a part in your healing.
This new way of doing sensory training engages special nerve pathways (called "inhibitory circuits") that naturally turn the volume down on sensations. With repetition and practice, the sensations begin to feel less unpleasant.
The game-changer in the field was a study published in The Lancet in 2001. Researchers found that an active approach to sensory training, first tried on patients with phantom limb pain, not only led to lasting change in pain but also showed measurable improvements in brain function when monitored with brain scan (fMRI) machines.
In 2008, this new approach was applied to CRPS for the first time, comparing it against the traditional passive stimulation method. The results showed that the new active approach was more effective. This has been further demonstrated in later studies (2009, 2017).
Despite these promising research findings, this new sensory training approach is hard to implement in daily life. It requires frequent daily practice and a trained family member or therapist to deliver the sensory exercises (while you close your eyes or look away). Additionally, the amount of repetition required can make the practice tedious and boring.
This is the inspiration for TrainPain. We're creating technology tools to empower people with the ability to perform sensory training at home. TrainPain doesn't just make training accessible, but it delivers the training through video games and uses algorithms to adjust the exercise difficulty for a personalized experience.
TrainPain is the Grand Prize winner in the 2023 innovation competition of the American Academy of Pain Medicine & MIT Hacking Medicine