Phantom Limb Pain and Chronic Pain

Overview

Phantom limb pain is pain that feels like it is coming from an arm or leg that has been amputated. Although the limb is gone, the nerve endings at the site of the amputation continue to send pain signals to the brain that make the brain think the limb is still there. Phantom limb pain can be mild to agonizing and even disabling for some. And it may lead to a lifelong battle with chronic pain. Women who have had a breast removed because of breast cancer may also feel phantom pain.

Some people experience other sensations such as tingling, cramping, heat, cold, and squeezing along with pain. You can feel any sensation in the portion of the limb that was removed (your "phantom" limb) that the limb might have experienced before it was removed.

You may also have residual limb pain at the actual site of the amputation. You may feel cramping, burning, aching, or sensations of heat or cold in the residual limb.

How is it treated?

Successful treatment of phantom limb pain may be challenging. Treatment is usually based on the amount of pain you are feeling. Many treatments may be tried. Often the best approach is to combine multiple treatments.

You may try a range of medicines to help with your pain. This may include over-the-counter medicines like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Or you may need prescription medicines like antidepressants or antiseizure medicines.

Other treatments may include:

  • Mirror therapy. This involves using a mirror to reflect your unaffected limb so that you "see" painless movement in your lost limb in the mirror.
  • Nerve stimulation. This includes treatments like transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) or spinal cord stimulation.

Related Information

Credits

Current as of: December 13, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Nancy Greenwald MD - Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

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