Home » What is Phantom Limb Pain and How to Manage It?

What is Phantom Limb Pain and How to Manage It?

by Melissa Bell
3 minutes read

Phantom pain is neuropathic pain. It is an ongoing sensation that comes from a body part that is no longer present. Studies have found that roughly 8 out of 10 people who have lost a limb experience some degree of this pain. It is mostly seen in arms and legs, but some people also feel it when a breast is removed. An analysis of 536 subjects (19% upper limb amputees and 81% lower limb amputees) found that phantom pain was common in 72% of the total group, 41% in upper limb amputees and 80% in lower limb amputees.

In America, there are 300-500 amputations daily. As of 2017, 2.1 million people are living with limb loss in the USA and this number is expected to double by 2050. So phantom pain might be more common than we realize. In fact, it is believed that almost 80% of the global amputee population has experienced it. It is a good idea to learn about this less-spoken condition to be able to ease the discomfort in an effective manner.

Cyber hand of female amputee. Disabled woman is changing settings of robotic prosthesis.

How to Detect Phantom Pain?

Symptoms can begin shortly after amputation which include a feeling of stabbing burning sensations, a throb or as if the missing part is being bent to a painful position. You can also feel a crushing and pins and needles sensation. While the sting might disappear in a while for some, for others it can be serious and long-lasting. A few triggers can be cigarette smoking, intercourse, cold exposure or a simple touch. So, try to avoid these as much as you can.

Why Does Phantom Pain Occur?
It is a mixed response from the brain. It no longer receives sensory signals from there and try to adjust to this in strange and unpredictable ways. Both the brain and the spinal cord can be confused and link the missing part with another body portion. The brain, in particular, can rewire itself and send pain signals. This is sent when the body figures out that something is not right. Most people start to experience the sores within 6 months of amputation. You can also feel itch, vibration, temperature, movement and pressure. The good news is that there are ample highly advanced medical treatments for relief.

How to Treat Phantom Pain?

Treatment options include nerve stimulation, medications and therapeutic techniques. Work with your doctor to obtain a personalized care plan apt for your needs. It will mainly focus on easing the symptoms with muscle relaxers, beta-blockers, antiseizure drugs, anticonvulsants and neurostimulation. Contralateral injections of 1 ml 0.25% bupivacaine in myofascial hyperalgesia areas can attenuate phantom limb pain and affect phantom limb sensation. Over the counter medicines and antidepressants are also beneficial to release the nerve pain by changing the chemicals that send wrong signals.

Opt for regional anesthesia like epidural in the amputated area for a few hours or days after the surgery. This can reduce the risks of phantom pain. You can also consider the non-medicated treatments like mirror box therapy, shrinker, acupuncture and massage of the residual limb to improve the post-amputation pain.

Related Articles