Phantom Limb Pain
Many people who have suffered the loss of a limb, whether it be through injury or amputation, continue to feel that the limb is still there well after it is gone. This phenomenon is known as phantom limb sensation.
Phantom limb sensation itself does not cause pain. However, oftentimes the nerve endings near the site of the lost limb continue to fire and send pain signals to the brain, resulting in pain. This is known as phantom limb pain. It affects four out of five people who lose a limb, and it can become a debilitating, chronic condition.
What causes phantom limb pain?
Experts are unsure as to what exactly causes phantom limb pain, but they believe it originates in the spinal cord and brain. When a limb is removed, the spinal cord and brain are forced to adjust to the sudden loss of input from that limb. This adjustment can happen in unpredictable ways, and sometimes it can trigger the body’s most basic response to a problem, which is pain. The pain can range from a mild annoyance to an agonizing impact on quality of life.
Not everyone with a removed limb will experience phantom limb pain, but there are a couple factors believed to increase the risk of developing it.
Preexisting pain – Research has shown that people who had pain in the limb before it was removed are more likely to have phantom limb pain. This is thought to be a result of the brain “remembering” that pain and continuing to send pain signals.
Residual limb pain – If someone experiences ongoing pain in the remaining part of the limb where the amputation occurred, they are more likely to develop phantom limb pain.
What are symptoms of phantom limb pain?
The primary symptom of phantom limb pain is the sensation of pain in a body part that is no longer there. The pain can be right next the amputation site or it can feel like it’s coming from the most distant part of the removed limb, e.g. feeling foot pain after an entire leg is removed.
The type of pain felt can vary, and may include burning, aching, stabbing, throbbing, itching, or tingling. The intensity of pain often decreases with time post-removal, but it may continue for years.
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