Phantom limb syndrome is the perception of sensations, usually including pain, in a limb that has been amputated. Patients with this condition experience the limb as if it were still attached to their body as the brain continues to receive messages from nerves that originally carried impulses from the missing limb.
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The exact cause of 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 body change.
The following factors increase the chance of developing phantom limb syndrome:
Symptoms 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.
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 take a medical history, do a physical exam, and especially want to know about the signs, symptoms, and circumstances that occurred before and after the removal of the limb.
Fortunately, most cases of phantom limb following amputation are brief and infrequent. For those patients who suffer from persistent pain, treatment can be challenging.
Selected medications used to treat phantom limb pain include:
In some cases, electrical nerve stimulation may be used. Examples include:
Amputee Coalition of America
Amputee Resource Foundation of America
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Carlson N. Physiology of Behavior . Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon; 1998.
Flor H, Nikolajsen L, Jensen TS. Phantom limb pain: a case of maladaptive CNS plasticity? Nature Reviews Neuroscience . 2006;7:873-881.
Phantom pain. Mayo Clinic website. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com . Accessed August 5, 2005.
Sekuler R, Blake R. Perception . 4th ed. NewYork: McGraw-Hill Inc.; 1994.
Last reviewed November 2012 by Rimas Lukas, 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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