Phantom Pain

What is Phantom Limb Pain?

Most people will experience at least some pain after undergoing surgery. As the tissues repair themselves, the pain generally subsides over time. However, recovering from an amputation understandably takes more time for your body to adjust to. After the initial pain subsides, there’s a possibility for several different types of sensations, some of which can be painful and unpleasant, and others that can be disconcerting and strange.

Phantom limb pain (also known as PLP) is a sensation felt by an amputee that an amputated or missing limb is still attached or part of the body. Those who experience this phenomenon feel that their amputated limb is not only still part of their body, but that it is still moving appropriately and functioning with their other limbs. These sensations usually are the strongest around six months after an amputation.

Some factors that might contribute to the development of this syndrome in amputees include:

  • Pain or infection prior to amputation
  • Presence of blood clots in the amputated limb
  • Traumatic amputation
  • Type of anesthesia used during the removal of limb



Amputation is the removal of an injured or diseased limb or extremity. An amputation can be planned in advance so that it may occur surgically, or it can happen suddenly due to a traumatic experience, such as an explosion or car accident. When an amputation is performed surgically, it is used to control pain or the spread of disease in the affected limb, or as a preventative measure.

In the US, the most common cause of an amputation is due to diseases and complications in blood vessels, especially from diabetes. These are typically lower-extremity amputations. Other causes are trauma, birth defects, gangrene, frostbite, a serious infection that doesn’t get better with treatments or antibiotics, and tumors. After amputation, most patients choose to wear a prosthesis, or prosthetic limb. 


Prosthesis, or Prosthetic Limb

The definition of a prosthesis in the medical world is an artificial device that replaces a missing body part. A prosthesis is also commonly known as an artificial limb or simply a "prosthetic," and is an externally applied device that is designed to make the loss of a limb less drastic for everyday life. It's also designed to improve quality of life for those who have experienced amputations. Many people continue to feel phantom limb pain in the amputated region, even after being fitted and becoming accustomed to their new prosthesis, or prosthetic limb. 



Phantom and Residual Limb Pain 

Most commonly, these sensations exist where amputations of arms or legs have occurred, though there have been reports that breast cancer patients who have undergone mastectomies may also experience a similar sensation. Another phantom limb pain is more of an unnerving feeling: “telescoping”, which is the feeling that the limb is still there, but has shrunk to a very small size.

Residual limb pain affects the part of the limb that’s left behind after an amputation, commonly referred to as the stump. This pain isn’t considered phantom limb pain, since it originates from the stump. Poor-fitting prosthetics or limb bruising can exacerbate the pain as well. Other things that can make phantom pain worse are:

  • Being too tired
  • Putting too much pressure on the stump or parts of the arm or leg that are still there
  • Changes in the weather
  • Stress
  • Infection
  • An artificial limb that does not fit properly
  • Poor blood flow
  • Swelling in the part of the arm or leg that is still there


Describing Phantom Limb Pain

Many patients have trouble properly describing their phantom limb pain. Many of the common descriptions are:

  • Pain in your limb even though it is physically not there
  • Tingly
  • Prickly
  • Numb
  • Hot or cold
  • Like your missing toes or fingers are moving
  • Like your missing limb is still there, or is in a funny position
  • Like your missing limb is getting shorter (telescoping)
  • Sharp, stabbing, or shooting pain
  • Achy pain
  • Burning pain
  • Cramping pain




Recovery is an ongoing process, and varies from person to person. There are several phases on the road to recovery, and each can hold difficult challenges and require different coping strategies. Many people feel that talking with friends and family (or a counselor) can help ease emotional distress. 

Patients undergoing amputation will need help in dealing with the changes in body image as they adjust to the loss of a limb. They should be encouraged and given the opportunity to express feelings of anxiety, grief, anger, and depression, and given guidance in working toward a healthy acceptance of their handicap.

About Kenney Orthopedics…

Working closely with patients and caregivers in Kentucky and Indiana, the Kenney Orthopedics Team employs the latest biomechanical management, materials, and technology to restore function and permit normal motion after your amputation. Our highly qualified staff in our Kentucky and Indiana locations will select, design, and fabricate the appropriate prostheses, prosthetic, or orthosis to fit your specific lifestyle and needs. Please contact us, or visit us at one of our many locations in Kentucky or Indiana if you have any questions! 

Working closely with patients and caregivers in Kentucky and Indiana, the Kenney Orthopedics Team employs the latest biomechanical management, materials, and technology to restore function and permit normal motion after your amputation.

The highly qualified staff of Kenney Orthopedics will select, design, and fabricate the appropriate prostheses, prosthetic limb or device, or orthosis to fit your specific lifestyle and needs after your amputation. Visit us in Louisville or Lexington, Kentucky, or at one of our other locations in Kentucky (KY) or Indiana (IN). We can help you get moving again with a prosthesis designed for you after your amputation!

Learn about our talented, qualified staff here!


Sources: 1, 2, 3

Image Sources: 1


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