Phantom Pain Causes and Symptoms

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phantom limb pain

Phantom limb pain is one of the most frustrating post-operation symptoms for amputation patients. Not only is the symptom challenging to diagnose, but it can feel alienating to experience pain in a part of the body that is no longer there. The pain can also remind the traumatic event, which burdens the patient even on good days. 

Phantom limb pain was once thought to be a purely psychological phenomenon, but research has shown that the pain receptors hosted within the spinal cord can cause real sensations even if the limb is no longer there. Understanding the causes of phantom limb pain makes it easier for us to treat and for you to recover from. 

What’s causing my phantom pain?

Modern scientific understanding of phantom pain paints it as much more than a psychological issue. After losing a limb, the brain and spinal cord must rewire the deeply embedded neurological connections between the body and mind. When the brain loses input from one of those connections, it may respond by sending a signal that something is wrong, and that signal is most often pain. 

Other types of phantom limbs can occur. For example, you may feel the limb is still there because the brain is trying to compensate for the lack of real neurological input. Or your brain rewires connections to other parts of the body. For example, when you scrape your knee, you may feel pain in a missing leg or phantom pain of a missing hand in the nose or cheek. 

Some factors that can increase the likelihood of phantom limb pain include: 

  • Scar tissue at the surgical site
  • Damaged nerve endings
  • Pain experienced before the amputation
  • Residual limb pain

Can my phantom pain be treated? 

Phantom limb pain can and should be treated by all patients who experience it. While there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for phantom pain, you should talk to your pain specialist about a variety of options: 

  • Medications – Pain medications and antidepressants can sometimes alleviate phantom limb pain, especially if it is related to pain before the amputation or pain in a residual limb. However, these do not work for all patients and should be discussed extensively with your doctor before use. 
  • Acupuncture – Acupuncture is viewed as an unorthodox treat for some but is recommended by the National Institutes of Health for several types of chronic pain. 
  • Mirror box and virtual reality – Mirror boxes help patients visualize the limb that was amputated, which can sometimes alleviate phantom pain. For example, your physical therapist may have you move the intact limb and visualize a limb that doesn’t hurt. Virtual reality programs are also being developed to help patients do similar therapies at home or in the office. 

PPOA offers a variety of options for patients to help them treat phantom limb pain. If you’d like to learn more or schedule a consultation, contact your local office today!

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