Phantom pain is pain that feels like it’s coming from a body part that’s no longer there. Many doctors once believed this post-amputation phenomenon was a psychological problem, but experts now recognize that these real sensations originate in the spinal cord and brain.
For these patients, the phantom limb sensations become a source of severe pain that can persist for months or years. People who suffered a sudden traumatic amputation or those who have complications following a surgical amputation, are more likely to suffer from this syndrome. The intensity and quality of phantom limb pain are not the same for everybody.
Symptoms of phantom pain may include a flash up your limb. Or it may feel more like burning, twisting, cramping, crushing, throbbing or aching. They often times present themselves within the first week after amputation, though may be delayed by months or longer.
The exact cause of phantom pain is unclear, but it appears to come from the spinal cord and brain. During imaging scans — such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or positron emission tomography (PET) — portions of the brain that had been neurologically connected to the nerves of the amputated limb show activity when the person feels phantom pain.
Many experts believe phantom pain may be at least partially explained as a response to mixed signals from the brain. After an amputation, areas of the spinal cord and brain lose input from the missing limb and adjust to this detachment in unpredictable ways. The result can trigger the body’s most basic message that something is not right and signals is with pain.
Studies also show that after an amputation the brain may remap that part of the body’s sensory circuitry to another part of the body. In other words, because the amputated area is no longer able to receive sensory information, the information is referred elsewhere — from a missing hand to a still-present cheek, for example.
A number of other factors are believed to contribute to phantom pain, including damaged nerve endings, scar tissue at the site of the amputation and the physical memory of pre-amputation pain in the affected area.
The treatment of phantom limb pain should focus on correcting underlying predisposing conditions, including the development of neuromas or painful bone spurs in the stump. Some of the effects of phantom limb pain can be alleviated with the use of oral medications, which help reduce pain from nerves.
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