What Is Phantom Limb Pain?
Phantom limb pain describes pain felt by an amputee in the area of the removed limb. This pain can range from mild to severe, and in some cases can even reach the point of debilitation. This can lead the patient to seek pain management options to help mediate the pain if there are no signs of improvement. Though phantom limb pain typically subsides over time, or at least decreases to manageable levels, if it continues after 6 months from the operation the chance for traditional improvement is slim.
What Causes Phantom Limb Pain?
Not all doctors are in agreement on what causes phantom pain; however one theory contends that the reason some amputees report pain from removed limbs is due to the nerve endings still sending signals to the brain. This in turn tricks the brain into believing the limb is still there, even though consciously we know it’s not. Another explanation is that nerves ‘rewire’ themselves after a limb removal, and without knowing exactly what to do they react with pain signal to alert you that something is wrong. Additionally, pain could be created due to damaged nerves, or scar tissue, depending on how the amputation was carried out, or if an accident damaged the area prior to removal.
To help combat the phantom pains pain medicines can be prescribed, and in some cases medications designed for epilepsy or depression may offer relief.
- Tricyclic antidepressants can help ease nerve pain by altering the chemicals in your brain that trigger pain.
- Anticonvulsants, designed to treat epileptic seizures can also help manage the phantom pain in a similar way.
- Opioids, such as morphine or codeine, can offer pain relief; however, these are not for everyone. If you have a history of dependence or substance abuse, another option may be better for you. Be sure to have a serious conversation with a pain management doctor before agreeing to a prescription.
Non-drug therapy options also exist, and can benefit those with mild pain, or those with whom pain medicine hasn’t been completely effective.
- Nerve stimulation therapy devices can be found at your local drugstore. These work by sending a weak electrical signal into the skin to stimulate your nerves. The electrical signals work to disrupt pain signals so before the brain can receive them.
- Acupuncture is another therapy option. By the placement of needles into specific places your body can be prompted into releasing its own pain relieving chemicals, whereby nullify the pain itself.
Additionally, if the pain is mild enough, pain management may be aided by the addition of a couple lifestyle changes.
- Keeping your mind distracted can help mitigate the pain. If you’re focused on something aside from the pain, your mind will begin to drift away from the constant pain signals, and overtime prove to be a strong management technique.
- Find ways to stay active. As with distracting your mind, distracting your body can also help relieve milder forms of pain.
- Meditation, or visualization techniques can additionally help train your mind to alleviate the pain signals. By training your mind, you can, over time, help ‘retrain’ it to nullify the phantom limb pain.
If you are experiencing phantom limb pain after an amputation, speaking with a doctor at a pain management center should always be your first course of action. Depending on the severity it may require medication or additional therapy to help alleviate the sensation. In the meantime, keeping your mind focused can help grant some relief.
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