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Understanding phantom limb pain

On Behalf of | Jul 13, 2020 | Injuries

If you underwent amputation of one of your limbs after a car crash or other catastrophic accident, you know how life-changing this is. 

Amputation represents one of the most devastating life changes anyone can experience. Not only must you deal with the physical trauma of losing a limb, you must also deal with the psychological effects of your new disability. In addition, upwards of 95% of amputees experience phantom pain in their missing limb. 

Phantom limb sensations 

Phantom limb pain ranges from mild and manageable to severe and debilitating. Common sensations include the following: 

  • You feel burning in your missing limb. 
  • You feel “electric shocks” emanating from your missing limb. 
  • You feel like your missing limb has frozen into a certain position. 
  • Your missing limb itches. 
  • Your missing limb tingles. 
  • You feel like your missing limb is telescoping, i.e., slowly shrinking inward and receding. 

Phantom limb pain causes 

Given that phantom limb pain descriptions vary widely, no one knows precisely what causes it. Several theories, however, exist. 

If you experience electrical shocks in your residual limb as well as in its missing portion, you likely suffer from neuroma. This side effect of surgical amputation involves the scar tissue that builds up around the nerve endings where your incision took place. 

The health of your limb’s nerves and blood vessels prior to amputation represents another major factor, as does the amount of time your surgeon had to plan your operation. The healthier your body and the longer your surgeon’s time to plan precisely what (s)he would do and how (s)he would do it, the more likely (s)he was able to use surgical techniques known for minimizing phantom limb pain after the amputation. 

Phantom limb pain resolution 

The good news is that phantom limb pain tends to decrease both in severity and in frequency over time. One reason is that your grieving process for your missing limb runs its course. Another reason is that the strenuous physical therapy you undergo makes your entire body, as well as your residual limb, stronger and healthier. 

Still another reason could be that you undergo mirror therapy wherein your physical therapist places a mirror between your amputated limb and your intact one. As you move your intact limb while watching the mirror, the reflected image tricks your brain into believing that your amputated limb still exists. 

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