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What is Phantom Pain?

Jenny L.F. Andrus, MDBy Jenny L.F. Andrus, MD

In this blog post, I will discuss the phenomenon of phantom pain and define for the reader how it manifests in patients, describing symptoms typically seen in those who have had limbs amputated.

Phantom limb pain has been recognized for centuries as a painful condition that may occur in people who have lost a body part. It was recognized as early as 1551 by a French military surgeon. At one point doctors believed phantom pain was a psychological problem. We now know that it is a physical problem originating in the brain and spinal cord.

Phantom limb pain is the feeling of pain in a part of the body that is no longer present. This typically occurs after a person has had an amputation of a limb. Even though the limb is removed, the brain perceives pain in the missing limb. This must be differentiated from phantom sensation. Phantom sensation is typically the perception of a non-painful sensation like touch or warmth in the missing limb. The person often reports, that at times, they still feel like the limb is there or can feel it move. This commonly occurs after amputation and does not require any specific treatment.

Phantom limb pain must also be differentiated from pain in the remaining portion of the limb. For instance, pain at the remaining portion of a partially amputated limb is called residual limb pain or stump pain. This has many causes including overgrowth of bone, abnormal sprouting of nerves or breakdown of fragile skin. Careful examination by your doctor will help determine the cause and subsequent treatment for residual limb pain. This too, is a common cause of pain after amputation, but once a source of the pain is determined this condition can usually be treated effectively.

Phantom limb pain differs in that it is the perception of discomfort in the missing limb. This may be described as a burning, throbbing, twisting or pressure sensation. It may be aggravated by stress or weather changes. The symptoms may come and go and can differ from day to day. Phantom limb pain typically is perceived in the amputated hand or foot. It often happens soon after amputation. It can improve with time; however, for many it is a long-term problem.

Learn about the causes of phantom limb pain.

Jenny L. Andrus, MD is a Board-Certified, Fellowship-trained Interventional Pain Management Specialist with Orthopaedic and Spine Center in Newport News, VA.  To schedule an appointment with Dr. Andrus, please call 757-596-1900.

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