Is Phantom Limb Syndrome Real?

Many people may wonder whether phantom limb syndrome is real or just a myth, but for those who experience it, there really is no doubt. According to Pain Management, more than 85% of amputees experience phantom limb sensation within three weeks of amputation. Phantom limb sensation is when a person can still feel the presence of an amputated limb, even though it is no longer there. Winchester Hospital notes that some people may even feel like their limb is still functioning normally.

It seems that the more experience that a person has had with a limb, the more likely they are to feel that the limb is still there. Phantom limb sensation increases with age, and among double amputees, sensation is more common in the dominant limb.

According to Mayo Clinic, phantom limb sensation may be due to the brain remapping the amputated limb's sensory circuitry to another body part. For example, the brain may remap the sensory information of a missing arm to that of the cheek, so that if the person's cheek is touched, they also feel the sensation in their missing limb.

This is what to know about phantom limb pain

Fortunately, phantom limb pain is more rare than phantom limb sensation in general. However, it is still rather common, affecting between 60% and 97% of people within the first year of amputation (per Pain Management). According to Winchester Hospital, the pain may feel like stabbing, shooting, burning, or piercing.

Mayo Clinic notes that this is more common among people who were feeling pain in the limb before having it amputated. One possibility is that this is because the brain remembers the pain and continues sending pain signals even though the limb is no longer there. For this reason, some doctors advocate for the use of anesthesia prior to amputation, in order to prevent long-term phantom limb pain.

According to the Amputee Coalition, certain conditions and activities may trigger phantom limb pain, with some triggers (such as smoking) being more easily avoided than others (such as using the bathroom). If you experience phantom limb pain, Winchester Hospital advises telling your care team. Phantom limb pain may resolve by itself over time, or it may require treatment. It might be treated with medicine or electrical nerve stimulation. Your doctor may also recommend a surgery to interrupt some nerves near the spinal cord.

Alternatively, some people may find relief through meditation, mindfulness, relaxation, biofeedback, hypnosis, acupuncture, massage, or exercise. The Amputee Coalition also suggests use of a shrinker, mirror box therapy, virtual reality therapy, music, and imagery.