What is a Phantom Limb?

A phantom limb is a vivid perception that a limb that has been removed or amputated is still present in the body and performing its normal functions. Amputees usually experience sensations including pain in the phantom limb.

What is phantom limb?

Studies suggest that between 90 and 98% of amputee patients suffer from phantom limb right after amputation or loss of their limb. Removal of parts other than the limbs may also cause phantom sensations. For example, removal of an eye, breast, or tooth can cause phantom perceptions. People born without a limb can also experience such phantom sensations.

This phantom limb phenomenon has been found to be caused by the changes occurring in the cortex of the brain following amputation of a limb. Moreover, it appears that the brain continues to receive signals from the nerve endings that originally supplied signals to and from the missing limb. Phantom limb is also thought to be caused by the brain rewiring itself and rearranging sensory information to adjust to the changes in the body.

In many patients, the phantom body part is perceived for a few days or weeks after loss or removal of the part. Comparatively, others may experience phantom limb pain that may persist for years after amputation.

Phantom Limbs Explained

Symptoms

Patients suffering from phantom limb pain perceive that the amputated limb is still present and functioning as usual. In many cases, these patients will experience a wide range of sensations in the phantom limb, some of which include:

  • A tickling feeling
  • Cramps
  • A shooting, piercing, or stabbing pain
  • Numbness
  • Please
  • Cold
  • Warmth
  • Tightness
  • Itchiness

While these symptoms can be mild in some patients, in others, they can be debilitating and interfere with their day-to-day activities.

Patients often feel that the phantom limb is distorted or shorter than the original limb. When a deformed limb or body part is removed, the deformity is usually carried over to the phantom.

In some cases involving phantom hands, patients felt that the phantom arm becomes shorter over time and, after a point, only the phantom hand is left dangling from the stump. This is called telescoping and is believed to be caused by the conflicting sensory signals received by the brain in these patients. Eventually, the brain learns to inhibit these conflicting signals, thereby allowing the phantom pain to also diminish.

Risk factors

Some factors that might contribute to the development of phantom limb syndrome in amputees include:

  • Pain or infection prior to amputation
  • Presence of blood clots in the amputated limb
  • Traumatic amputation
  • Type of anesthesia used during the removal of limb

The phantom limb phenomenon is seen more commonly in adults than in children. This is likely due to the brain, as the brain of children has typically not finished consolidating images of their external organs.

Treatment

Coping techniques such as muscle relaxation, meditation, biofeedback, massage, and hypnosis have been shown to help some patients deal with phantom pain or related symptoms. Additionally, certain drugs such as analgesics, muscle relaxants, sedative-hypnotics, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and anticonvulsants are commonly used in treating phantom pain.

In some cases, shock therapy and acupuncture have been used to relieve symptoms. When non-invasive treatments fail to work, invasive approaches such as stimulation of the spinal cord, intrathecal drug delivery, and deep brain stimulation have been used to treat phantom pain.

Electrical nerve stimulation techniques such as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation and transcranial magnetic stimulation have been found to be beneficial in some patients. It is also believed that administering pain-relieving medicines before amputation decreases the chances of developing phantom pain after the surgery.

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References

Further Reading

Last Updated: May 6, 2021

Susha Cheriyedath

Written by

Susha Cheriyedath

Susha has a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree in Chemistry and Master of Science (M.Sc) degree in Biochemistry from the University of Calicut, India. She always had a keen interest in medical and health science. As part of her masters degree, she specialized in Biochemistry, with an emphasis on Microbiology, Physiology, Biotechnology, and Nutrition. In her spare time, she loves to cook up a storm in the kitchen with her super-messy baking experiments.

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