Phantom limb syndrome is the perception of sensations, including pain, in a limb that has been amputated. People with this condition experience feelings in the limb as if it were still attached to their body. This is because the brain continues to receive messages from nerves that originally carried impulses from the missing limb.
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The exact cause of phantom limb syndrome is unknown. Presumably, the sensations are due to the brain’s attempt to reorganize sensory information following the amputation. The brain must essentially rewire itself to adjust to the changes in the body.
Phantom limb syndrome is more common in adults than in children. Other factors that may increase your chance of developing phantom limb syndrome include:
Symptoms may occur in people who have had a limb removed and people who are born without a limb. The symptoms are perceived in a limb that does not exist.
Phantom limb syndrome may cause sensations of:
Following an amputation, it is important to tell your doctor if you experience pain or other sensations. Earlier treatment generally improves the chances of success.
There is no medical test to diagnose phantom pain. Your doctor will ask about your medical history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will especially want to know about the signs, symptoms, and circumstances that occurred before and after the removal of the limb. Diagnosis can be made based on your symptoms of any sensations from the missing limb.
Fortunately, most cases of phantom limb syndrome following amputation are brief and infrequent. For those people who suffer from persistent pain, treatment can be challenging.
Your doctor may recommend the following to help with your symptoms:
In some cases, electrical nerve stimulation may be used. Examples include:
Amputee Coalition of America
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Casale R, Alaa L, et al. Phantom limb related phenomena and their rehabilitation after lower limb amputation. Eur J Phys Rehabil Med. 2009;45(4):559-566.
Chahine L, Kanazi G, et al. Phantom limb syndrome: A review. Middle East J Anesthesiol. 2007;19(2):345-355.
Flor H, Nikolajsen L, et al. Phantom limb pain: a case of maladaptive CNS plasticity? Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2006;7:873-881.
Foell J, Bekrater-Bodmann R, et al. Phantom limb pain after lower limb trauma: origins and treatments. Int J Low Extrem Wounds. 2011;10(4):224-235.
Peripheral neuropathy. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us. Updated December 2, 2013. Accessed December 3, 2013.
Resources for pain management. Amputee Coalition website. Available at: http://www.amputee-coalition.org/limb-loss-resource-center/resources-for-pain-management/index.html. Accessed December 3, 2013.
Rothgangel AS, Braun SM, et al. The clinical aspects of mirror therapy in rehabilitation: a systematic review of the literature. 2011;34(1):1-13.
Weeks SR, Anderson-Barnes VC, et al. Phantom limb pain: Theories and therapies. 2010;16(5):277-286.
Wolff A, Vanduynhoven E, et al. 21. Phantom pain. Pain Pract. 2011;11(4):403-413.
Last reviewed December 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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