Pain After Amputation

Following an amputation, some patients report pain that feels as though it’s coming from the missing body part. This is called phantom limb pain. And even though the condition sounds unbelievable — a sensation coming from an area of the body that no longer exists — it is a very real occurrence with neurological causes and effects.

The majority of amputees experience sensations from the missing limb. Usually, the sensations are painful, but not always. Patients have reported everything from ranging from tingling and itching to burning and aching. An amputee can also feel as though the missing limb is performing a motion, such as gesturing with an arm or picking something up with a hand.

Sometimes there are outside factors that can affect the pain. For example, patients have reported changes in symptoms and their frequency due to emotional state, weather changes and how much time has passed since the amputation.

A lot of time, energy and resources have been poured into studying phantom limb pain, with many different theories arising over time. Whatever the specifics of their individual theories, scientists and other health professionals do seem to agree that there is a connection between phantom limb pain or other phantom sensations and the brain’s attempt to essentially “rewire” itself following the abrupt loss of, or severing of, certain nerves.

Phantom limb pain could result from the brain’s struggle to make sense out of nerve signals that actually no longer make sense based on what the brain knows to be true based on what the body has experienced, and on what the eyes can see (which is that a limb is no longer present).

The brain may also be recalling memories of the missing limb, including sensations it remembers feeling (signals transmitted from the missing body part to the brain), and positions or movements it remembers the limb holding or performing (signals transmitted from the brain to the missing body part).

Some amputees experience such uncomfortable phantom limb sensations that they must undergo treatment for the pain. This type of pain management program may include medications such as analgesics or antidepressants, spinal cord stimulation, or other, more nontraditional methods like hypnosis, acupuncture and biofeedback.

More and more evidence suggests patients whose plans treat the underlying neurological problems, rather than just the symptoms, or at least a combination of both, will ultimately experience the most long-term relief.

Image via EmsiProduction on Flickr

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