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Phantom Pain associated with Amputation

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Phantom Pain

Phantom pain is a real senstation; however, only a small percentage of amputees have severe problems with phantom pain.  For many, the pain occurs in very short episodes, and passes quickly. In other cases, the sensation of pain can last for extended periods of time becoming quite excruciating.  Recent studies into phantom sensations in absent limbs and phantom pain are uncovering more about how to deal with the pain that can be intense and seemingly impossible to treat.

Some patients say the pain they felt in their limbs immediately before amputation persists as a kind of pain memory.  For example, soldiers who had grenades explode in their hands reported that their phantom hand is in a fixed position, clenching the grenade, ready to toss it.

The pain in the hand is excruciating - the same they felt the instant the grenade exploded.


A woman in England suffered severe frostbite on her thumb as a child. Gangrene developed and the thumb had to be amputated. Now, 50 years later, she reports having chilblains (a frost-like pain due to cold weather) in her thumb when the weather turns cold.

A girl born without forearms experienced phantom hands six inches below her residual arms. She reported the sensation of using her phantom fingers to calculate arithmetic problems.

Today, thousands of such stories have the medical profession acknowledging that what these people feel is a real sensation, a sensation that can prove to be quite debilitating. Many doctors specialize in research regarding phantom pain and the sensation of missing limbs. Their hope is that research will help thousands of people around the world enjoy pain-free lives.

Relief for Phantom Pain

Despite intense research in this area, there is still much to be learned about the physiology of the nervous system and how to treat phantom pain.  Therapies include medications and biofeedback, electrical nerve stimulation, massage, heat, cold, compression, acupuncture and acupressure, cranial sacral therapy, and touch treatment therapy.  Just as the amount of pain people feel differs between patients, so do treatment results.  What works for one person may not be effective for another. While it may not be hard to explain, understanding how phantom pain acutally "feels" by a non-amputee can be undescribable.  As a trans-tibial amputee myself, I have experienced phantom pains and was able to overcome them by simple thought processes. Simply stated, when I experience them, I merely remind myself that the limb is not there, so the pain cannot exist.  It may sound simplisitic, but as powerful as the mind is, the process requires dedication and repetition.

Back Pain

Researchers are currently investigating the different types of pain and sensations following amputation. Studies have indicated that painless phantom limb sensations were quite common, and occurred more frequently than phantom limb pain. Residual limb pain and back pain were also common following amputation from traumatic incidents.

Pain Study

In one recent study, back pain was surprisingly rated as more bothersome than phantom limb pain or residual limb pain.  Back pain was significantly more common in people with above-knee amputations. Research also suggests that back pain following lower-extremity amputation is likely to be overlooked but is an important pain problem, warranting additional clinical attention and study.

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