What is Phantom Limb Pain?

By definition, phantom limb pain is pain felt in a body part that is no longer there. It was once believed to be a mental health issue, but experts in pain management now see these as real pain sensations coming from the spinal chord and brain.

It can be experienced by those who have lost any body part but happens most often in missing arms and legs.

For some, phantom pain fades away without any treatment whatsoever. For others, a pain management doctor is needed to treat phantom pain with various treatments and medications.

Phantom limb pain treatments

What does it feel like?

Pain manifests itself in multiple ways. Phantom limb pain is not the same for everyone, either. Patients report it feels like:

  • Throbbing
  • Burning
  • Pins & needles
  • Twisting
  • Shocking

There have also been reports of it feeling like a “shooting” or “crushing” feeling. As you can tell, the reports cover just about every different type of pain you can think of.

When talking to your doctor, make sure to describe your pain as best you can. It can help them properly treat it.

How do we treat phantom limb pain?

Medical treatments

There is not a medication out there specifically meant to treat phantom limb pain. It has only just been widely accepted by the medical community as something that is bodily and pain related, rather than mental.

medications used to treat other issues are often used to treat it. Here is a list of some of the medical treatments often used for phantom limb pain:

  • Antidepressants – There are types of antidepressant medications that can relieve pain caused by damaged nerves.
  • Anti-epilepsy medication – anticonvulsants treat nerve pain. They silence damaged nerves and can slow or stop chronic pain.
  • Narcotics – opioids like codeine and morphine can be an option or some people. The natural downfall of this kind of treatment is the risk of dependence and addiction. When taken appropriately and under the direction of your doctor, they can be effective.
  • Anesthetics – A class of anesthetics called N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonists is able to block pain activity. In some studies, NMDA was able to relieve phantom pain.

Noninvasive therapies

Phantom pain is also commonly treated with non-invasive therapies. When you talk to your doctor, let them know whether or not you like the idea of medication. Many patients try to avoid taking medication whenever they can.

Noninvasive therapies for phantom limb pain include:

  • Nerve stimulation – A device is used to send an electric current via “sticky patches” attached to the skin. They are attached near the area where the pain is most prevalent. This is done to change or mask the pain receptors much like the medications.
  • Mirror box therapy – A “mirror box” is a device used to make it seem like the limbless individual has both limbs intact. Exercises are done while the patient imagines they still have both limbs. This has been known to relieve phantom limb pain mentally.
  • Acupuncture – acupuncture has been known to be an effective treatment for some forms of chronic pain. fine needles are inserted into the skin at specific points in the body sometimes called “pressure points.” The idea is that the central nervous system will release endorphins, helping you cope with or resolve the feeling of pain.

Nerve block injections pain management

Minimally invasive treatments

In between invasive and non-invasive, minimally invasive treatments can slightly damage the skin in order to treat what lies underneath.

  • Injections – painkillers are sometimes injected to relieve this kind of pain. Anesthetics, steroids, or both can be used. Injected directly into the remainder of the missing limb.
  • Spinal Chord Stimulation – tiny electrodes are inserted along the spinal chord. Electric current delivered through the electrodes can relieve the pain.
  • Nerve Blockers – A medication used in an attempt to block off nerve receptors responsible for the sensation of pain.

What is coming in the future?

There are technological advancements booming all of the time. Virtual reality goggles, on the same page as mirror box therapy, can help a patient envision their missing limb as if it was still with them.

When exercises are done this way, allowing the patient to imagine still having both limbs, improvements have been made in the pain being felt. It is a mental phenomenon that is still somewhat mysterious. Almost a way of tricking the brain into “rebooting” and realizing that there is no longer a limb, negating the need for pain.

Get in touch with us.

Still, have questions? V.K. Puppala and the staff of Comprehensive Spine & Pain would be happy to help you talk about the pain you are feeling and the ways we can help you fix it.

Focused on a minimally and non-invasive-first mentality, we will help you with the goal of minimal downtime and recovery needed.

Until next time,