Understanding Phantom Limb Pain
Certain medical conditions or unfortunate accidents result in a body limb, such as an arm or leg, having to be amputated. Many people who have had an amputation feel pain, or other sensations, in the limb as if it is still attached. In cases where they experience pain, it is called phantom limb pain. Not everyone who loses a limb will experience phantom limb pain, but for those that do, the pain can range from mild to severe.
Phantom limb pain differs from stump pain. Stump pain exists at the precise site of the amputation; whereas, phantom limb pain exists in the location where the missing limb used to be. Although phantom limb pain can be felt in any body part that has been removed, it is most commonly felt in the arms and legs.
Phantom limb pain does not feel like the same every individual who experiences it, the symptoms vary from person to person. Symptoms of phantom limb pain include, but are not limited to: pain that feels like shooting, stabbing, cramping, pins and needles, crushing, burning, electrical shock, twisting, and throbbing. Individuals may also experience sensations such as movement, pressure, itching, temperature changes, and vibration in the limb that has been amputated. Phantom limb pain may develop within the first week after the amputation or many months after the amputation. The pain may be intermittent or constant.
The exact cause of phantom limb pain is not known. It is believed that pain signals are sent to the brain because of the missing limb. Other factors, such as damaged nerve endings and scar tissue at the amputation location, are also believed to cause phantom limb pain.
Risk factors for developing phantom limb pain include, but are not limited to: pain in the limb before the amputation and/or pain in the remaining part of the limb. The brain may retain the memory of pain in a limb before being amputated which may cause the brain to send pain signals to either the stub or other body parts, such as the opposite remaining limb (such as a leg or arm). In some circumstances, growth occurs at the amputation site which causes damage to nerve endings resulting in residual limb pain.