Phantom limb syndrome is the perception of sensations, including pain, in a limb that has been amputated. People with this condition experience feelings in the limb as if it were still attached to their body. This is because the brain continues to receive messages from nerves that originally carried impulses from the missing limb.
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The exact cause of phantom limb syndrome is unknown. Presumably, the sensations are due to the brain’s attempt to reorganize sensory information following the amputation. The brain must essentially rewire itself to adjust to the changes in the body.
Phantom limb syndrome is more common in adults than in children. Other factors that may increase your chance of developing phantom limb syndrome include:
- Preamputation pain
- A blood clot in the amputated limb
- Preamputation infection
- Previous damage to spinal cord or peripheral nerves that supplied the affected limb
- Traumatic amputation
- Type of anesthesia used during the amputation
Symptoms may occur in people who have had a limb removed and people who are born without a limb. The symptoms are perceived in a limb that does not exist.
Phantom limb syndrome may cause sensations of:
- Shooting, stabbing, piercing, or burning pain
- An article of clothing or jewelry
- The limb still being attached and functioning normally
- Numbness, tickling, or cramping
Following an amputation, it is important to tell your doctor if you experience pain or other sensations. Earlier treatment generally improves the chances of success.
There is no medical test to diagnose phantom pain. Your doctor will ask about your medical history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will especially want to know about the signs, symptoms, and circumstances that occurred before and after the removal of the limb. Diagnosis can be made based on your symptoms of any sensations from the missing limb.
Fortunately, most cases of phantom limb syndrome following amputation are brief and infrequent. For those people who suffer from persistent pain, treatment can be challenging.
Your doctor may recommend the following to help with your symptoms:
- Muscle relaxers
- Imidazoline receptor agonists
In some cases, electrical nerve stimulation may be used. Examples include:
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)—a tiny electric current is sent through the skin to points on the nerve pathway
- Transcranial magnetic stimulation—a strong magnetic pulse is sent through the scalp into the brain
- Spinal cord stimulation—an electrode is inserted and a small electric current is delivered to the spinal cord to relieve pain
- Regional sympathectomy—a surgical procedure that interrupts selected nerves near the spinal cord affecting the perception of localized pain
- Meditation and relaxation techniques
To help reduce your chances of getting phantom limb syndrome, some believe that administering pain medication at the time of the amputation may prevent persistent pain afterward. The effectiveness of this approach has yet to be confirmed.
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Last reviewed December 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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