Phantom limb pain is an unusual form of pain that occurs following amputation, when pain is felt in the area that has been removed.
In some cases of amputation, nerve endings at the end of the amputated limb continue sending messages to the brain that make it feel as though the limb is still present. The brain may confuse the sensation with the memory of pain, making it feel as though the limb is in pain. For some people, the phantom sensations decrease over time and eventually disappear; in other cases, however, the pain lasts for more than six months, at which point it becomes much harder to treat.
Phantom pain can range from mild to severe; the type of pain may be shooting, burning, or aching. Aside from pain, some patients may experience other phantom sensations – these can range from tingling or prickling sensations, numbness, cramping, or feeling hot or cold. It’s also possible to feel the sensation of movement – that toes are moving, for example, or that the ankle is sitting in an odd position.
Conditions that exacerbate phantom pain include stress, fatigue, pressure on the end of the limb, a poorly-fitting prosthetic, and even changes in the weather.
Treatment of phantom pain can be difficult, especially if pain is severe or lasts longer than six months. Multiple types of treatment may be combined to find the best method. Relaxation techniques are common and can help reduce mental stress, as is physical therapy. Therapeutic massage and applying heat may also be used, as well as biofeedback to decrease muscle tension. Doctors may prescribe various medications, from basic pain-relievers to anti-convulsants, antidepressants, and beta-blockers; steroid or local anesthetic injections may also be recommended. In some cases, scar tissue is responsible for part of the pain when it becomes wrapped up with nerve endings; in these cases, surgery may be able to separate them.