Man Running on a Beach with a Prosthetic Leg

Phantom Limb Pain

Losing a limb is a traumatic and difficult experience. Unfortunately, even after the loss, the brain can interpret pain as if it is coming from the lost appendage. In addition to pain, other sensations can be felt, such as itching, tingling, warmth, and coldness. These feelings can come and go and can be incredibly frustrating, even maddening, for the person experiencing it.

Treating phantom limb pain requires an understanding of the processes that may be contributing to how the brain perceives and interpretation sensations.  Distraction can be useful with simple methods such as listening to music, talking to someone, reading, and watching a movie. However, when these methods do not provide enough relief, then other methods such as nerve stimulation, such as what is provided by a TENS unit, or spinal cord stimulation which is stimulated through small, implanted paddles, can be used. Sometimes, nerve blocks can be performed.

If phantom limb pain is interfering in your ability to live your life, call MD Sport, Spine, and Pain Management to discuss the most comprehensive treatment plan for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the Symptoms of Phantom Limb Pain?

Phantom limb pain occurs in a limb that has been amputated or lost and not attached to the body. This pain, which is believed to manifest in the spinal cord and brain, gives you the indication of coming from a limb that is no longer there.

Along with the pain, you may experience other phantom limb sensations, such as:

  • Coldness
  • Warmth
  • Itchiness
  • Tingling
  • Numbness

These symptoms, along with the pain, may come and go, or they may be steady. Sometimes it may feel like your missing limb is in an odd position or like your limb is moving.

What Causes Phantom Limb Pain?

The underlying cause of phantom limb pain is unknown, but it’s believed to occur in the spinal cord and brain. While your limb is missing, the nerves in your spine and the area in your brain that is responsible for the sensations in that area are still present and functioning.

In MRI and PET imaging tests, the area of the brain that was connected to your missing limb activates when phantom limb pain occurs. This has refuted the past idea that phantom limb pain resulted from a psychological issue; that theory is no longer accepted.

Instead, experts believe that the nerves that were attached to your limb adjust themselves, but that it can lead to a miscommunication in the brain. Because the body knows that something’s not right, it creates pain.


How is Phantom Limb Pain Treated?

Your doctor spends time discussing different options for your phantom limb pain. He starts with basic relaxation skills that can help dissipate the pain. He may recommend deep breathing or have you imagine tensing and then relaxing the missing limb.

Distraction can also help reduce phantom limb pain and decrease its frequency. Listening to music, reading a book, or going for a walk may help. Calling a friend may even be enough to distract your mind and reduce the severity of your pain.

Over-the-counter pain medications may also help.

When these treatments aren’t effective, the Metro Denver Pain Management practice may recommend nerve stimulation through a TENS unit or, in more severe cases, implanted devices.

In extreme cases, the specialists may suggest nerve blocks or even surgery.