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Phantom Sensation and Phantom Pain After Amputation

Many people who have an amputation experience phantom sensation or phantom pain. Understanding the difference between the two will help you and your healthcare provider create a treatment plan just right for you.

Phantom sensation

Phantom sensation is when you “feel” the missing part of your limb. You may feel an itch or a tickle. Or it may feel as if the missing portion of your leg is asleep. It is most often mild, not painful.

No one is sure why phantom sensation happens. One common theory has to do with nerves. Nerves that supplied sensation to the missing part of your limb are often still functioning. They are just higher up in your limb. This means that your brain may not know how to interpret signals from these nerves. Your brain may think that the signals are coming from the missing part of your limb.

Phantom pain

Phantom pain is when you have stronger, painful sensations that seem to come from the missing part of your leg. It may feel like a quick zing or flash up your leg or it may feel more like burning, twisting, cramping, or aching.

Phantom pain is likely to come and go, and some say they experience it more often at night. Keep in mind, not everyone experiences phantom pain after amputation. It’s far less common than phantom sensation. Phantom pain is most often manageable. But if it becomes hard to live with, talk with your healthcare provider.

Closeup of hands massaging end of amputated leg.
Once sutures or staples come out, spend time every day gently rubbing and tapping your residual limb. This will help desensitize it.

Treating phantom pain

There are several ways to treat phantom pain. If needed, ask your healthcare provider if any of these options might work for you. The ones listed below are the common treatments. Your healthcare provider may recommend others.

  • Medicine. Antiseizure medicines or antidepressants are often used to treat phantom pain. They tend to work better for this type of pain than normal painkillers.

  • Frequent touch. Desensitization is used to lessen or relieve pain. Gentle tapping and massaging the end of the residual limb helps to calm the sensations down. You may begin massaging your residual limb once the surgical sutures or staples are removed. Be sure to thoroughly wash your hands before performing the desensitization techniques to keep the area clean and prevent germs from being in the newly healed area.

  • Wearing a shrinker sock. A shrinker sock is a compression sock made for the shape and size of your limb. The compression in the shrinker keeps constant pressure on the end of the limb helping to relieve phantom sensation and pain.

  • Using your prosthesis. Like wearing a shrinker sock, using a prosthesis provides steady pressure to the limb. This seems to reduce phantom pain for some people.

For more information

See the following Rehabilitation After Lower Limb Amputation workbook, developed by VA and DoD.

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 4/1/2020
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
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