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What is Phantom Limb Pain? - Characteristics, Causes & Treatment

Instructor: Marisela Duque

Marisela teaches nursing courses at the college level. She also works as a unit educator, teaching experienced nurses about changes in nursing practice.

When you complete this lesson you will be able to define phantom limb pain, describe its characteristics and list treatment options. A short quiz follows this lesson.

Jodi's Story

Jodi is a veteran that has come home after surviving a car bomb explosion overseas. While Jodi did make it out with her life, she had some severe injuries to her right leg. After multiple surgeries and months of physical therapy she was still unable to use her leg and it caused her excruciating pain everyday.

After trying everything, she finally decided to have her leg amputated so that she can eventually be fitted for a prosthesis and hopefully walk again. Immediately following the amputation, Jodi was in high spirits and hopeful about the future. A few weeks later, when she was recovering at home, Jodi describes to her family that she is experiencing pain in the missing limb. Jodi's family becomes worried that she's going crazy. How can she feel pain in a leg that is no longer there?

This may sound like a scary story that you may hear around a camp fire. But for many people suffering from phantom limb pain , this is their reality. The good news is that the pain is treatable and fades with time for most people.

Defining Phantom Limb Pain

It's now known that after an amputation, which is complete or partial removal of a limb, that all people still have some sensation in the missing limb. This is called phantom sensation. When an amputee feels pain in their missing extremity, then it's known as phantom limb pain (PLP). This occurs in about 80% of amputees, because the brain and spinal cord don't know the limb is missing and continue to send messages through the nerves that are still intact there. The pain may feel sharp, achy, burning, twisting, or cramping.

The good news is that for most people, this pain fades over time. It's helpful to avoid certain things that can make the pain worse. These include:

  • Being overly tired
  • Weather changes
  • Stress
  • Too much pressure on the stump (the remaining part of the arm or leg)
  • Poor circulation
  • Swelling of the stump
  • Poor-fitting prosthesis (artificial limb)
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Touch

How is Phantom Limb Pain Treated?

Treatment for this condition requires a multifaceted approach. Medication that interrupts the pain signal from the brain or spinal cord and other non-medication therapies work best to alleviate the pain.

Medications usually prescribed for PLP include:

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