If you’ve recently gone through an amputation, you’ve experienced firsthand a highly surprising truth – limbs that no longer exist can hurt, a lot!
Known as phantom nerve pain, this condition is common in arms and legs – though some people feel it in other forms of removed body tissue, including fingers, toes, and even breasts.
How can a missing body part still feel pain?
This article will help walk you through the details to help you understand more about what’s happening under the surface when you experience these phantom pains.
What is Phantom Nerve Pain?
Phantom nerve or limb pain is considered to be a condition where the body undergoes painful sensations after surgery to remove a body part.
This pain often starts immediately after surgery and can last as long as six months, sending signals to the brain that the non-existent limb is burning, itching, twitching, or under pressure. Oftentimes, phantom nerve pain is felt in the fingers and toes of diabetic patients, and some estimates state that as much as 80 percent of the world’s amputee population has dealt with this kind of pain.
What does nerve pain feel like?
Phantom nerve pain tends to feel exactly like pain that occurs in existing limbs.
Long ago, doctors blamed this post-amputation phenomenon on psychological stress after the operation. Today, however, they understand that the feeling comes directly from the spinal cord.
These bouts of pain can last for just seconds, or they can continue under the surface for hours or even days. While phantom nerve pain symptoms tend to diminish with frequency and intensity over time, some people experience them for years at a time without respite.
There’s no reason to be embarrassed about talking to your doctor about strange feelings in a limb that was removed. This is a highly prevalent occurrence for people that recently underwent an amputation.
For some, the pain goes away on its own. For others, it can last for months, even years, and cause flare-ups of extreme pain.
Some people find these symptoms to be a significant challenge, so it’s necessary to meet with your doctor to discuss the details if this sounds like you.
What Triggers Phantom Pains?
Researchers are still unclear about the exact cause of phantom pain, but the leading theory is that the pain comes from the signals that the spinal cord sends to your brain. Imaging scans like magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) find that the portions of the brain connected to the amputated limb neurologically show activity when the person expresses that they feel phantom pain.
This is likely because when the brain loses contact with an amputated body part, it attempts to readjust in unpredictable ways, often sending pain signals from where it came from. As pain is the brain’s way of telling the body that something isn’t right, it shoots pain through the area where the limb is to communicate this message more clearly.
It takes time for the brain to remap how the body looks after an amputation, and in the time before this image is updated, phantom pains are frequent occurrences. However, some other conditions can lead to phantom pains in an amputated body part, including damaged nerve endings, too much scar tissue, and even physical memories of what it felt like to have that limb.
For many people, certain actions tend to trigger their phantom pain signals, including sexual intercourse, traveling to higher elevations, smoking cigarettes, and exposure to cold temperatures. Understanding what behaviors trigger your nerve pain helps you avoid them and spend less time suffering after your amputation.
Can Phantom Nerve Pain Be Treated?
Though there aren’t any medical tests for diagnosing phantom pain, your doctor can identify whether you have the condition by carefully observing the symptoms you mention. The more precisely you describe your pain to your doctor, the easier it is to pinpoint its cause and prescribe the best treatment option.
Finding solutions for phantom pain that work for everyone is complicated. Doctors often start by prescribing pain medications and noninvasive therapies like acupuncture or therapeutic massage. If these don’t help and your pain doesn’t diminish after six months after your amputation, your doctor might suggest a second surgery to repair the nerve ending that might have poorly healed in the site of the amputation.
How to Prevent Phantom Nerve Pain
If you recently had an amputation, there are things you can do to prevent phantom nerve pain from becoming an issue for your body.
Often, the best thing you can do is to distract your body from the pain so that your brain stops trying to get your attention with a pain signal. Looking for distractions like physical exercise, conversations with friends or a good book can keep your mind off the nerve signals and help your body recover faster.