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Phantom Limb Pain: An Overview

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Amputation may be necessary to remove an infected limb or reduce the amount of pain an individual is feeling due to a damaged limb. While amputation is the best medical choice for many different situations, it does not always successfully eliminate pain. In fact, around 60 to 80 percent of those who have had a limb amputated experience a type of sensation that feels as though the limb is still there. For the majority of individuals, this sensation is very painful and is referred to as phantom limb pain. Those who have had a recent amputation are more likely to experience phantom limb pain compared to those who have been living with an amputation for an extended period of time.

What causes phantom limb pain?

Phantom limb pain is caused by the nerve endings that are still present in the brain. Although the limb is no longer there, the nerves are still sending signals to the brain that there is something wrong with the limb. The brain is also excellent at remembering pain and will sometimes continue to remember and process the pain that was felt in the limb. Over time, the brain and nerve endings will adjust to the fact that there is no limb there and the pain should decrease.

What are the symptoms of phantom limb pain?

Symptoms of a phantom limb are straightforward, but many patients will not understand the type of pain or sensations they are feeling since they no longer have a limb in that area. Patients may feel tingling, a numb feeling, or coldness where there limb was amputated in addition to pain. Any feeling that a patient could have experienced in the limb before the amputation may be experienced after the amputation.

How is phantom limb pain treated?

The most common treatments for phantom limb pain include physical therapies and temperature therapies. The application of heat where the amputation was performed can reduce the feelings of coldness and can help block the pain. A massage where the limb was removed can also help. Additionally, biofeedback therapy and relaxation techniques can all help reduce the pain by allowing the nerve endings to become more relaxed. Individuals who are experiencing extreme pain may have to have additional surgery to remove the scar tissue that is entangling the nerves. Anti-depressants, beta blockers, and pain relievers are also sometimes prescribed to patients who are experiencing phantom limb pain.

Phantom limb pain can be discouraging to people who have had an amputation and believe that removing the limb will reduce pain and suffering. Finding the right solution for phantom limb pain is dependent on each case, because some patients will respond better to medication while others will respond best to physical therapy techniques. Doctors will be able to determine the best treatment options and combinations for patients who are dealing with phantom limb pain.