What is phantom limb pain?

Some people experience pain and other sensations in removed limbs after amputation. This phenomenon is referred to as phantom limb pain, which can cause quite a bit of distress for a person recovering from losing a limb. In many cases, phantom pain and sensations occur shortly after the surgery, but pain can be delayed for months in some instances. Fortunately, the healthcare field has greatly expanded its understanding of this condition, which means that patients are treated more effectively.

In the past, it was believed that phantom limb pain was solely a psychological issue. Advanced imaging technology shows that it's caused by signals originating in the brain and spinal cord in areas that were previously attached to the now missing limb. The body, unsure what to do with these connections now that the limb is gone, signal distress by causing painful sensations. Some people don't experience pain or discomfort but feel like their missing limb is there.

People who experienced a great deal of pain in the amputated limb before surgery have a higher chance of developing phantom limb sensations of some kind. For this reason, doctors often provide numbing agents, such as regional anesthesia, before the surgery. That way the patient goes into the procedure free of pain, which reduces the risk of phantom pain once the surgery is complete. 

If the pain does present, there are a lot of treatment options that have proven effective in the past. Medications, including mild pain relievers, antidepressants, and opioids, may be able to address painful sensations. In fact, medication is often the first line of treatment utilized. Alternative therapies may also be recommended. Along with traditional healing treatments like acupuncture, some patients experience relief via mirror boxes, which allow the patient to visualize the missing limb. In severe cases, deep brain stimulation may be utilized. 

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