Phantom limb pain is a unique phenomenon that develops in patients who’ve lost a limb due to amputation. Patients with phantom limb pain often describe experiencing pain from a limb that is no longer there, which has doctors scrambling to determine a possible explanation. As such, many physicians and experts in the field have found that phantom limb pain is not a physiological problem as previously suggested. In fact, researchers have determined that phantom limb pain originates in the spinal cord and brain. While this condition typically occurs in patients who’ve lost an arm or leg, it can also develop in patients who’ve lost body parts, such as eyes, a tongue, breasts, a penis, ears, etc.
The exact cause of phantom limb pain is not clear, but as we mentioned previously, it is believed that this condition originates in the spinal cord and brain. According to the Mayo Clinic, a number of imaging scans discovered there was activity in portions of the brain that were neurologically connected to nerves of an amputated limb. This tells physicians that phantom limb pain may occur from mixed signals in the brain. When a patient has his or her body part amputated, the brain loses input with that extremity and tries to remap the body’s sensory circuit to make up for the loss. It’s possible this process may cause the brain to react in unpredictable ways, resulting in misfired pain signals and other sensations. There are other factors that may increase a patient’s risk of developing phantom limb pain, such as damaged nerve endings and scar tissue at the site of the amputation.
Patients who’ve had a limb removed often describe sensations that make it feel like the limb is still there. While this isn’t phantom limb pain per se, it is important to note during the evaluation process. The most common sign of phantom limb pain is pain, but there are other characteristics that may indicate the presence of this condition. For example, patients with this condition may experience pain that comes and goes or is continuous; pain that is described as shooting, stabbing, throbbing, burning, or aching; pain that is trigged by pressure on the amputated limb or emotional stress, and pain that affects the part of the limb farthest from the body. For example, patients who’ve had an arm amputated may describe feelings of pain in the missing hand.
For mild cases of phantom limb pain, conservative therapies such as rest, ice, elevation, and over-the-counter pain relievers may provide some level of pain relief. However, as the condition progresses, patients may require more advanced forms of treatment for their growing pain. A Southwest Spine and Pain Center physician may recommend a combination of interventional treatment options to ensure long-term relief from pain. Medications and non-invasive therapies, like nerve stimulation, massage therapy, physical therapy, and acupuncture may be prescribed to patients with mild to moderate pain symptoms. If these therapies fail to provide adequate pain relief, a physician may recommend steroid injections, nerve blocks, and spinal cord stimulation. Severe cases of phantom limb pain may require deep brain stimulation, a stump revision, or neurectomy. Talk to a Southwest Spine and Pain Center physician today to learn more about treatment options for phantom limb pain.