Is Phantom Limb Pain Permanent?

When you lose a limb, or any part of your body, the experience can be traumatic. The grief over the loss is important to recognize, but some amputees experience another painful reminder of their situation. Up to 85% of recent amputees suffer from phantom limb pain. While that number may seem high, the good news is that most will find relief with proper treatment.

Why does it hurt? It’s not there?

The short answer is… we’re still working on finding the correct answer. However, there are theories that help guide us towards effective treatment options. We do know the pain is very real, and probably originates, due to a confused nerve pattern, in the spinal cord and brain.

Are there ways to prevent phantom limb pain in the first place?

The lack of definitive reasoning for phantom limb pain makes it hard to pinpoint preoperative prevention strategies. That being said, it’s been found that people who experience pain in their limb before amputation, or suffer from stump pain afterwards, are more likely to suffer from phantom limb pain, too. That means that it’s extremely important to manage your pain throughout the entire removal process in order to give yourself the best chances when it comes to avoiding phantom limb pain. Talk to your doctor and come up with a pain management plan. Even armed with this information, prevention can’t always take precedence, and this doesn’t necessarily help in emergency situations. Luckily, there are many treatment options for phantom limb pain.

So, can I move on from phantom limb pain and find relief?

There is a very good possibility you’ll overcome the pain associated with your phantom limb. Five percent of amputees may feel persistent pain over their lifetime, but even in those worse case scenarios, the pain often becomes much more tolerable and lessens over time. The best way to boost your chances of a complete recovery is to create a treatment plan with your doctor. The plan might include multiple therapies to produce the optimal outcome. Here are some of the potential options:

Medications: Your doctor may prescribe or recommend an anti-depressant, neurogenic, opiate, or over-the-counter pain medications and/or a topical pain cream. Their recommendation will depend upon your symptom levels.

Physical Therapy and Body Manipulation: Sometimes it takes a support team to heal – and your team may include a physical therapist, occupational therapist, acupuncturist, or bodywork practitioner (like a massage therapist). Manual manipulation, along with targeted therapeutic exercises, including mirror therapy, can help you overcome the phantom limb pain.

If after some time, the more conservative treatment options mentioned above don’t result in improvement of your phantom limb pain symptoms, your doctor may recommend surgery or spinal cord stimulator implants to help you accomplish your recovery goals.

Recovering from an amputation is hard enough without phantom limb pain, so it can be especially burdensome if it presents in your case. Remain hopeful, and contact your doctor to develop your treatment plan. Odds are that you’ll find relief soon after you begin your treatment regimen.

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