Phantom Limb Pain: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Amputations are one of the most difficult medical experiences a person can go through. Not only is one’s mobility and lifestyle affected but the grief of losing an appendage can turn someone’s life around. In many cases, both the body and mind have trouble adjusting to the loss of a limb which can result in some unexpected symptoms, including phantom limb pain.

Phantom limb pain is a common occurrence among amputees but is often difficult to talk about because of the physical and emotional experiences that go along with it. Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor and ask for support. The sooner you seek help, the easier it is to recover from these symptoms.

What is phantom limb pain?

Phantom limb pain is a side effect of amputations in which the patient feels pain in a limb that was amputated. This is similar to phantom limb sensations, where the amputee still feels as if the limb is there. However phantom limb pain is typically more debilitating, as the pain is just as intense as if the limb were still attached to the body.

While phantom limb pain is most common in patients who have lost arms or legs, it can be felt by patients who have lost eyes, tongues, breasts, or other body parts.

What causes phantom limb pain?

It can be both frustrating and confusing for patients to experience phantom limb pain. We think of pain as a physical response to external stimuli; so, if the stimuli aren’t there, why is the pain? For decades, doctors believed that this condition was solely a psychological phenomenon. However current research suggests that patients are actually experiencing the brain’s way of “rewiring” the nerves after amputation. Your nervous system is highly complex and the brain needs time to understand your body’s new “layout” before it can begin to process external stimuli correctly.

It is believed that part of phantom limb pain is the brain’s way of warning the body that something is wrong. When the nerves are damaged or missing at the site of the amputation your brain received new signals that aren’t in alignment with what it understood before. Therefore, it sends pain signals as a sort of “memory” of where the limb used to be. Your brain is simply trying to catch up with your body.

Approximately 8 out of 10 patients experience some form of phantom limb pain after amputation. Some of the factors that can increase the likelihood of phantom limb experiences include:

  • Angina (chest pain due to low oxygen to the heart)
  • Changes in temperature or barometric pressure (similar to how the weather affects arthritis patients)
  • Constipation
  • Shingles
  • Physical touch
  • Smoking
  • Emotional stress

Symptoms of Phantom Limb Pain

Phantom limb pain is your brain’s way of adjusting to amputation and typically gets better with time. However, it is very common for amputees to experience one or more of the following symptoms while they are physically and emotionally healing from their amputation:

  • Stabbing or aching pain in the area of a lost limb
  • Pain near the amputation site after the body has healed
  • Pain in the area of the amputated limb farthest from the body (for example, pain in the hand of an amputated arm)

This condition can be exacerbated by emotional stress and real pain at the site of the amputation, either from the healing process or from an uncomfortable prosthetic. However, with the help of a specialist, you can seek lasting relief from your pain.

How to treat phantom limb pain

Phantom limb pain is difficult to treat because it originates in the brain rather than the body. A variety of treatment options exist and are typically tailored to the patient’s history and severity of their symptoms. In addition to medications and interventional medicine, several unconventional therapies have proven effective, such as:

  • Mirror box: A mirror box is a device that helps patients to visualize the missing limb as if it were there, helping the brain process and reduce the pain. For example, a patient with an amputated leg sits with the mirror facing their intact leg. They can then do exercises or move their leg to visualize the other leg as if it were still there. This has shown to help some patients reduce phantom limb flare-ups.
  • Acupuncture – Acupuncture is used for a variety of chronic conditions and is showing promising results with phantom limb patients. Acupuncture works to trigger self-healing mechanisms in the body, and is widely accepted in the medical community as a treatment for chronic pain.

If traditional therapies have not worked for you in the past, talk to PPOA about other treatment options. We take a holistic approach to pain management that utilizes a variety of techniques and medical interventions to provide you with long-lasting relief. To learn more about your options, contact your local PPOA office today.