A phanthom limb is the sensation or feeling the limb that is not there anymore or is amputated. Most of the amputees (persons whose limb has been amputated) feel the upper or lower limb that is non-existent after the amputation. Some of the amputees even feel pain in the limb that does not exist anymore.
Although the reason for this sensation is not yet understood, it is known that the sensation of the non-existent limb usually resolves within two to three years without treatment. But some continue to experience phanthom pain or feeling of pain from the non-existent limb.
Causes of Phanthom limb pain:
Causes of Phanthom limb sensation or pain is explained by the scientists as the rewiring of the nerves of the spinal cord that were related to the amputated limb. When they stop getting signals from the missing arm or leg, the brain senses something wrong and reacts by sending pain signals. Sensation of pain is a natural response of the body and the brain to catch the attention of something wrong with that part of the body.
Some of the risk factors like blood clot in the amputated limb, infection before the amputation, unexpected amputation, previous damage to spinal cord or peripheral nerves of the affected limb, etc can affect the phanthom limb sensation or pain.
Symptoms of Phanthom limb pain:
Onset of the phanthom limb sensation is sometimes immediately after amputation and sometimes starts a few weeks later. Some patients have reported continuous pain and some have intermittent sensations and pain.
Most of the patients report that the symptoms affect the part of the limb that is farthest from the body, like fingers or toes.
Some of the sensations that seem to be coming from the non-existent limb include:
- Shooting, piercing, burning or stabbing type of pain
- Toes twisting, cramping of muscles
- Pins-and-needles sensations, sensation of shock
- Pleasure such as light touch
- Feeling or clothing or wearing a jewellery like bracelet, ring, anklet, etc
Apart from static sensations or pain, the patient may feel other types of pain like movement, pressure, temperature, vibration and itching.
Treatment of Phanthom limb pain:
Usually, the phanthom limb pain subsides on its own after a while. If the patient reports intolerable pain, the treatment is given for specific symptoms.
Medicines for Phanthom limb:
Some doctors may prescribe medicines to manage the symptoms. The medicines prescribed are based on individual needs, allergies, preferences, etc. Some drugs prescribed include:
- Muscle relaxants
- Pain medication
Nerves may be stimulated with electrical impulses, which is reported to have helped overcome extreme pain sensations.
- Minimal electric current is sent through the skin to nearby nerves (Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation)
- Magnetic pulse sent to the brain by placing electrodes on scalp (Transcranial magnetic stimulation)
- Electrode is inserted near the spinal cord to relieve pain (Spinal cord stimulation)
- Regional sympathectomy is a surgical procedure that interrupts the signals passing through selected nerves near the spinal cord.
- Mirror therapy is about viewing the reflection of the intact limb in a mirror where the amputated limb would have existed. With this visual input, the patient finds it easy to do some therapeutic exercises, which in turn help relieve the pain in the missing limb.
Some approaches like meditation and relaxation, hypnosis, massage, acupuncture, exercises, etc have also been tried but only a few people have reported difference in the sensation.