Phantom limb pain is pain that feels like it’s coming from a body part that’s no longer there. Doctors once believed this post-amputation phenomenon was a psychological problem, but experts now recognize that these real sensations originate in the spinal cord and brain.
Although phantom limb pain occurs most often in people who’ve had an arm or leg removed, the disorder may also occur after surgeries to remove other body parts, such as the breast, penis, eye or tongue.
For some people, phantom limb pain gets better over time without treatment. For others, managing phantom limb pain can be challenging. You and your doctor can work together to treat phantom limb pain effectively with medication or other therapies.
Symptoms of Phantom Limb Pain
Most people who’ve had a limb removed report that it sometimes feels as if the amputated limb is still there. This painless phenomenon, known as phantom limb sensation, may rarely occur in people who were born without limbs.
Phantom limb sensations may include feelings of coldness, warmth, or itchiness or tingling — but should not be confused with phantom pain. Similarly, pain from the remaining stump of an amputated limb is not phantom limb pain. By definition, phantom limb pain feels as if the pain comes from a body part that no longer remains.
Characteristics of phantom limb pain include:
- Onset within the first few days of amputation
- Comes and goes or is continuous
- Often affects the part of the limb farthest from the body, such as the foot of an amputated leg
- May be described as shooting, stabbing, boring, squeezing, throbbing or burning
- Sometimes feels as if the phantom part is forced into an uncomfortable position
- May be triggered by pressure on the remaining part of the limb or emotional stress
Causes of Phantom Limb Pain
The exact cause of phantom limb pain is unclear, but it appears to originate in the spinal cord and brain. During imaging scans, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or positron emission tomography (PET), portions of the brain that had been neurologically connected to the nerves of the amputated limb show activity when the person feels phantom limb pain.