You might have heard about “ghost pains” or “phantom pains” before, perhaps in reference to someone who has lost a limb but can still feel it as though it still sits at their side. While these pains may seem like a psychological side effect of trauma, phantom pains are much more complex than the brain’s response to losing a limb. Here are a few facts about phantom pains:

What are Phantom Pains?

In short, phantom pain is a form of pain that comes from a body part that’s no longer there. Typically associated with amputated limbs, phantom pains can affect other parts of the body that have been removed as well. While phantom limb sensation—the feeling that a limb is still there—is similar to phantom pain, the two are quite different: phantom pain hurts, and phantom limb sensation does not. While not everyone may experience phantom pains or phantom limb sensation, all amputees can develop it, especially if the removed body part was in pain before removal. Phantom pains can also affect people born without limbs as well, although this is less common.

What Causes Phantom Pain?

Phantom pain is more than just psychological, although psychology does play a part in phantom pains. While the exact cause is unknown, studies from the past decade have gathered theories as to what exactly causes phantom pain. The prime suspect? Nerves. One theory states that when a limb or a body part is severed, the nerves are as well. This results in false nerve signals from the severed limb appearing in the spinal cord, as the body attempts to “fill in the blanks” of what was once there. This theory, however, does not explain how people born with missing limbs experience phantom pain, but it’s a start!

What do Phantom Pains Feel Like?

“If the body part isn’t there, then what does it feel like?” According to those who experience phantom pain, the sensation can vary, but most phantom pain consists of shooting or stabbing pain, cramping pain, burning sensations, and throbbing pain. Alongside the pain, most people experience a “pins and needles” sort of sensation, similar to the affected limb falling asleep.

How can Phantom Pains be Remedied?

While phantom pain can be quite stressful, it can be managed, just like any other form of pain. For some, painkillers work well and will use anti-inflammatory drugs like acetaminophen. Sometimes, opioids can be used to relieve pain as well. Alongside painkillers, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, beta-blockers, and muscle relaxers can all be used to prevent the pain from reaching the spinal cord in the first place.

Outside of medications, there are a vast number of treatments amputees can tak to relieve phantom pain, some of which include creating the illusion that the missing limb is still there. Mirror box therapy and virtual reality have been able to help amputees regain control of their nerves but massaging or raising the affected limb can help relieve pain in a similar manner as well. Other pain management therapies include acupuncture and TENS therapy as well.


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