What Exactly Is Phantom Limb?

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What Causes Phantom Limb Pain?

After the amputation is complete and the limb is no longer in place, the nerve endings at the amputation site may continue to function in an unusual way. When phantom limb pain occurs, the nerve endings generate pain signals that cause the amputee’s brain to think the limb is still in place. About 80 percent of amputees encounter phantom limb pain.

While most people have this condition after a limb amputation, other major surgeries can also generate similar feelings. After an appendix surgery, for instance, patients may feel pain or other uncomfortable sensations where the organ once was.

Which Symptoms Indicate Phantom Limb Pain?

Most people who suffer from phantom limb experience feelings of pain. Others may encounter other sensations, though. Some people feel itchy or paralyzed at the amputation site. Others feel tingling sensations, cramping, or extreme hot or cold temperatures. Still others sense that the limb is still attached and feel an urge to use it.

Phantom limb pain isn’t the same for every amputee, and tracking the symptoms and severity can prove challenging. As time passes, pain can increase or decrease, and sometimes it disappears altogether. When you first notice any of these symptoms, talk with your doctor as soon as possible.

How Is Phantom Limb Pain Diagnosed?

There’s no single test to diagnose phantom limb pain. Instead, doctors typically talk with patients and assess symptoms to diagnose this condition.

If you think you’re experiencing phantom limb, be sure to provide your doctor with as much information as possible about your surgery and the trauma or situation that caused the amputation. Take careful notes about every instance of pain, and tell your doctor when it occurs and what sensations you experience. The more details your doctor has about your condition, the more helpful your treatment will be.

What Treatments Are Available for Phantom Limb Pain?

After receiving a phantom limb pain diagnosis, patients typically work with their doctors to find the right treatment methods. In most cases, treatment for phantom limb pain depends on the severity of the symptoms.

For patients with lower levels of pain, massage at the amputation site or learning relaxation techniques can help alleviate symptoms. For others, applying heat or receiving steroid or anesthetic injections can be helpful. Some patients may require surgery to remove scar tissue at the amputation site, and others may need nerve blocks. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) of the amputation site or deep brain stimulation might be treatment options for patients with more severe symptoms.

It isn’t always easy to manage phantom limb pain symptoms and treatment on your own. Try to help loved ones understand your chronic pain as part of the healing process, and make sure you get the support you need.

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