Phantom limb pain is a chronic condition that commonly affects patients with amputated body parts. This disorder most often occurs in patients with arm or leg amputations, but it can also develop in people who’ve had surgery to remove their breasts, genitalia, eyes, or tongue. Phantom limb pain is characterized as pain coming from a body part that no longer exists. This condition can also produce painless sensations such as tingling, numbness, coldness, warmth, or itchiness near the area of the missing limb. At one time, phantom limb pain was considered a psychological problem. Now, physicians understand these symptoms originate from mixed signals in the spinal cord and brain.
There is no exact cause of phantom limb pain, but researchers speculate the condition develops in patients with damaged nerve endings or scar tissue near the site of an amputated limb. There are also theories that the brain and spinal cord’s inner circuitry misfire sensory signals to body parts that are no longer present. Experts believe the brain loses input from the missing limb, so it sends a warning sign that something is not right, which is often experienced as pain. There is still much to learn about this unique condition, but the most common cause of phantom limb pain is a surgical amputation.
Phantom limb pain is an unpredictable condition that can develop immediately after an amputation or several years after a body part has been removed. Most people with phantom limb pain report painless sensations near the remaining stump of the amputated limb, such as tingling, numbness, itchiness, coldness, or warmth. Over time, these sensations may progress and become shooting, stabbing, burning, or throbbing pains. Other characteristics of this condition include pain that is continuous or sudden; pain that develops in the farthest part of the amputated limb, such as pain in the hand of an amputated arm; or pain that’s trigged by pressure or emotional stress.
Phantom limb pain is a complex condition that can be difficult to treat. Nevertheless, medications and conservative therapies may be recommended to help minimize a patient’s discomfort. The specialists at TriState Pain Institute may also suggest steroid injections, nerve blocks, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), or spinal cord stimulation for pain relief. If these interventional pain care methods do not work, a physician may provide the patient with a referral for specialized care. In the case of phantom limb pain, specialized care may be a stump revision, neurectomy, or deep brain stimulation.