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  • Writer's pictureGainesville Prosthetics

Phantom Limb Pain, Sensations, and Solutions

Phantom limb pain and sensations are extremely common symptoms experienced by individuals with an amputation. Although not every patient experiences them, many will experience some type of phantom limb pain or sensation at some point in their prosthetic journey. This post will help you with some recommended solutions, whether that is at-home remedies or medications to speak with your physician about.

Phantom limb symptoms can come in the form of sensations or pain. Common phantom limb sensations include feeling like the amputated portion of the limb is still present, feeling cramps or itchiness in the amputated portion, or general feelings of tingling, pins and needles, temperature changes, or pressure.

Phantom limb pain can come in many forms. Like sensations, pain is caused by the remaining nerves connecting the amputated limb to the brain. The pain can be sharp, sudden, and severe, or it can be a chronic aching pain, and can include feelings of burning, stabbing, electricity, twisting, and severe pins and needles. Pain or sensations may persist throughout the day or for multiple days, or may be sudden and fleeting. Regardless of the type of pain or sensations you feel, you deserve to be comfortable and explore the solutions that exist.

Doctors still do not know what causes phantom pain and sensations; for years, it was widely believed to be psychological, but recent research has shown physical causes within the brain exist. Many individuals's phantom pain and sensations fade in frequency and duration within approximately 6 months after their amputation, but it is possible for these sensations to persist for years or decades after operation. Often, the sensations simply become weaker and less frequent, but occasionally individuals can experience telescoping, characterized by reduced phantom sensations as the phantom limb begins to feel smaller or shorter.

The most straightforward treatment for phantom limb pain or sensations is medication, which can only be obtained through a prescription from your physician. Medication may or may not be right for you, and it is possible that your physician is unaware of other phantom limb therapies. If you are uncomfortable with the idea or process of medications, ask your physician or prosthetist what other options are available.

One of the most common therapies for phantom limb pain or sensations is mirror therapy. Mirror therapy is typically carried out with a physical therapist or other professional, but can be done at home as well. All that is needed is a mirror that is large enough for you to view most of your body, or the entirety of your sound limb at minimum. If you have a lower limb amputation, set up the mirror so that you can be seated or laying, the mirror shows the entirety of your sound limb, and so that it can stand on its own and does not require adjustments throughout the process.

Once the mirror is placed where you would like it, orient yourself so that your sound limb appears in the mirror, but your amputated limb is not. Perform gentle stretching and exercises with your sound leg while focusing your eyes on the reflection in the mirror. Doing these exercises with your sound limb while looking at it and not your residual limb works to trick your brain into believing your amputated limb is still present, helping to reduce phantom limb pain and sensations. This method may seem bizarre or fruitless; do not get discouraged and remember that this method is effective for many individuals who share your experiences. It is also important to remember that mirror therapy is not effective for everyone. If it does not work for you, remind yourself again not to be discouraged and remember that many more solutions exist.

Below is a list of some of these options, almost all of which can be done at home with little to no cost to you.

  • Keep a journal or notes of your pain or sensations; this will help both you and your physician understand the causes of your pain and will aid in finding solutions

  • Wrap your limb in a warm, soft fabric to increase circulation

  • Mentally exercise the limb in the spot that is painful; for example, if you have phantom pain in your toes, mentally flex and contract them

  • Gently massage or pat the limb with your hands to increase circulation; ask someone to do it for you if needed

  • Tighten the muscles in your residual limb, then release them slowly

  • Put a shrinker or ace bandage on your limb; if you have your prosthesis, put it on and take short walks

  • If you have any pain due to your prosthesis, remove it and any accessories such as socks and liners

  • Change the position of your limb or body; if seated, stand up or move in your seat to increase circulation

  • Soak in a warm bath or hot tub or use a massaging shower head with warm, not hot, water

  • Wrap your limb in a heating pad, taking care to ensure it is not too hot or left on for too long

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