What is Phantom Limb and Why Does Phantom Limb Pain Occur?

phantom limb

Years ago, doctors used to categorize phantom pain as a psychological condition; however, doctors today know that phantom pain is not psychological – it is a very real condition that affects individuals who have recently experienced an amputation. If you have recently undergone an amputation, you may be wondering what phantom limb pain is and why it occurs.

What is Phantom Limb?

Simply put, phantom limb refers to feeling a sensation or pain in a limb that is no longer there. Phantom limb pain can occur in any body part that was removed including the arm, foot, hand, eye, or even the breast. However, phantom limb most often occurs in the arm or leg and affects the furthest part of that limb. For instance, phantom limb sensations or pain are more likely to be felt in hand or foot rather than the forearm or shin.

phantom limb pain

Even though phantom limb isn’t necessarily tangible, it feels very real.

It is very common to experience phantom limb within the first six months following an amputation, but the initial onset occurs within a few days of the amputation surgery. It is important to note that every individual who experiences phantom limb experiences it differently. For instance, phantom limb can cause both painless sensations (such as feeling an itch in the removed limb) or pain. For those that do experience pain, the pain itself can feel different to different individuals. The pain can present itself as:

  • Electrical shocks
  • Burning
  • Crushing sensations
  • Stabbing
  • Throbbing
  • Squeezing

Why Does Phantom Limb Pain Occur?

Unfortunately, research can’t pinpoint one exact cause of phantom limb pain although there is no denying that is not merely psychological. There are a few theories that point to possible causes. Some scientists believe that phantom limbs occur as the brain tries to “rewire” itself. Because the brain has lost connection with the nerves in the missing limb, the brain then tries to rewire itself. Pain, while never pleasant, is the body’s way of communicating a problem with the brain; in this case, pain signals are sent as the body and brain sense a problem (i.e.. loss of connection the missing nerves.)

A second theory, supported by a few studies, is that the brain is trying to adjust the sensory circuitry. The body normally stores sensory info in certain places; anything previously stored in the missing limb must now be stored elsewhere. This theory accounts for odd events like scratching your head and feeling an itch on your missing foot.

what is phantom limb

Even with a fitted prosthesis, you can still experience phantom limb pain.

Regardless of what the main cause of phantom limb is, many researchers agree that many elements contribute to the incidences of pain or sensations. Those contributing elements include:

  • Damaged nerve endings (potentially from an accident)
  • Scar tissue (a normal part of the process)
  • Memories of feelings in that area (remembering what holding hands felt like or what the scratchy wool sweater felt like on your arm)
  • Improperly fit prosthetic devices

How Can Your Prosthetist Help Alleviate Phantom Pain?

Although there is no instant cure for phantom pain, it is important to know that an ill-fitting prosthesis can contribute to phantom limb pain. Putting on your prosthesis correctly and making sure the piece fits properly are two ways to reduce your risk of phantom pain. If you have any questions about your prosthesis and phantom pain, don’t hesitate to contact us!

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