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How to Manage Phantom Limb Pain

Aug 14, 2020
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The human nervous system is incredibly complex and there’s much we still don’t understand, which is certainly true of phantom limb pain. Thankfully, we do have effective solutions for managing the pain and discomfort.

Surgeons perform 30,000 to 40,000 amputations each year in the United States, and phantom limb pain (PLP) is one of the more common, and frustrating, side effects. While effectively managing pain of an identifiable problem presents certain challenges, PLP is an entirely different matter, since you’re registering symptoms in a limb that no longer exists. Luckily, you do have options for finding relief.

At Commonwealth Pain and Spine, our team of experienced pain management specialists understands the complexities of phantom limb pain, and we offer a wide range of solutions. We understand that losing a limb is difficult enough, and our goal is to help you adjust to your new normal with more comfort.

With that in mind, here’s a look at phantom pain and what we can do about the problem.

Understanding phantom limb pain

Phantom limb pain is a complex pathophysiology that’s not very well understood, but the one thing that all medical researchers can agree on is the fact that it can present serious quality-of-life issues.

While we call it phantom limb pain, the problem can present itself in myriad ways. For example, the pain can be different from one person to the next, with one suffering from a burning sensation in the now-absent limb while another feels a sensation akin to electric shocks.

Aside from the many different types of pain, you may experience itching, temperature changes, vibrating, or pressure in the absent limb.

The bottom line is that your body is trying to adapt to the abrupt change and it can throw off both your peripheral and central nervous systems, which can lead to ongoing sensations in a limb that is no longer there.

Treating phantom limb pain

Since there’s no tangible injury that we can address to mitigate the pain, we turn to other solutions that have helped our patients overcome the discomfort of PLP.

For example, we’ve found that some antidepressants or anticonvulsants can help in managing PLP, as they address your brain’s chemistry and your nervous system, respectively.

Another option is to disrupt the pain signaling with transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) therapy. With this therapy, we deliver mild electrical currents that interfere with the signaling between your nerves and your brain. In some cases, we go a step further with spinal cord stimulation, a procedure in which we place electrodes near your spinal cord to accomplish the same disruption that the TENS therapy creates.

Since PLP is pathophysiologic, we also recommend tackling the problem from different angles, such as:

  • Acupuncture
  • Physical therapy
  • Meditation

Another technique that has proven successful in relieving the pain is working with a mirror box. This approach gives you the illusion that both of your limbs are intact and you work both of these “limbs” simultaneously.

The bottom line is that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to phantom limb pain, but, rest assured, we work exhaustively with you until you find relief.

If you’d like to explore your options for managing your phantom limb pain, contact one of our 12 locations in St. Matthews, Elizabethtown, Lexington, Crestview Hills, Owensboro, and London, Kentucky; Evansville, Vincennes, New Albany, Carrollton, and Jasper, Indiana; and Carmel, Indiana, to set up an appointment.