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4 Facts About Phantom Limb Pain

Woman Massaging Her Knee
If you recently had a limb amputated, or if you have begun discussing the possibility of amputation with your doctor, you likely have some concerns about phantom limb pain. Also known as phantom limb syndrome, this phenomenon causes amputees to experience pain and unpleasant sensations that they believe to be coming from the missing limb.
Phantom limb pain is very real, and it is quite common in amputation patients - so you have reason to be concerned. Thankfully, however, treatments and management practices for phantom limb pain have come a long way in recent decades. Keep reading to learn more.

1. Phantom Limb Pain Can Come on at Any Time

Most patients begin experiencing phantom limb pain within a week of their amputation procedure, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, in some cases, the pain does not begin until months or even years later. You should never hesitate to talk to your doctor about phantom pains you experience, regardless of the timeline. 
Do not dismiss discomfort that feels like cramping, throbbing, or burning, either. Everyone experiences phantom pain differently; it's not always the stabbing, shooting pains as portrayed on TV.

2. Phantom Limb Pain Has Several Risk Factors

Between 50 and 80 percent of amputees suffer from phantom limb pain. This may leave you wondering what the differences are between those who suffer and those who do not. 
Patients are more likely to experience phantom pain if they had pain in the limb prior to amputation. Those who have both legs or arms removed are more likely to suffer than those who have one limb removed. Damage to the nerves in the amputated limb's stump also increases the risk of pain, as does the presence of pain elsewhere in the body - such as headaches or joint pain. 

3. Phantom Limb Pain Is Caused by Changes in the Brain

A physician named V. S. Ramachandran made great strides towards understanding the cause of the condition in the 1990s. He proposed that it was not the nerves leading to the amputated limb that were causing the pain but rather the brain itself.
According to Ramachandran's theory, after a limb is amputated, the part of the brain dedicated to that limb becomes desperate for sensations and generates pain signals as a result. Ramachandran's discoveries led to the development of mirror therapy, one of the most effective ways to treat phantom limb pain.
With mirror therapy, the patient stands with their existing limb in front of the mirror, generating a reflection. They then watch themselves using the limb, and the reflection makes their brain think the missing limb is being used. This satisfies the brain's need for sensory input from the missing limb, thus alleviating the phantom pain. 

4. Phantom Pain Can Be Managed in Many Ways

In addition to mirror therapy, phantom limb pain has a multitude of treatment options. Deep brain stimulation, a procedure in which a surgeon places an electrode on the surface of the brain and administers electrical impulses to eliminate pain signals, works well for some patients.
Others experience relief from injections pain relievers into the amputation site. Antidepressants and anticonvulsants may provide some relief.
For some patients, cognitive behavioral therapy helps reduce phantom limb pain. This type of therapy aims to change the way you think about your pain. Instead of seeing it as an insurmountable problem, you begin to see it as a challenge you can conquer.
Treating phantom limb pain requires that you work closely with your doctor to try multiple approaches and combinations of treatments. Be patient; no single approach works for everyone.
If you are dealing with phantom limb pain after an amputation, contact the doctors at Pain Care Management. We offer a wide range of pain management treatments, including neuromuscular therapy, oral medications, injections, and stress-reduction therapy.