Aimee Copeland, the Georgia student who lost her left leg, right foot and hands to flesh-eating disease, is battling phantom limb pain – the sinister sensation that her bacteria-ravaged limbs are still there.
“Although she has no hands, her brain is apparently still telling her body that the hands are there,” Copeland’s father, Andy Copeland, wrote in a blog post.
It’s been five weeks since a fall from a homemade zip line near the Little Tallapoosa River landed Copeland in critical condition at Doctors Hospital of Augusta with necrotizing fasciitis. The 24-year-old survived, against all odds, but faces the lingering physical and emotional pain of the amputations that saved her life.
“I asked her if she could describe the pain and she told me, ‘It feels like I have been carrying bags of rocks,’” Andy Copeland wrote. “Wow. Imagine carrying bags of rocks for days on end and never being able to release them.”
Phantom limb pain is thought to arise from damage to nerve endings near the amputation site and the brain’s reaction to the loss of sensory input from the limb.
“Almost everyone who has a limb amputated will experience a phantom limb – the vivid impression that the limb is not only still present, but in some cases, painful,” Vilayanur Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, wrote in a 1998 report.
Pain medications are often ineffective. But tricking the brain into seeing and moving the missing limb can ease phantom limb pain in some people.
“It occurred to us that if one could somehow enable the patient to generate voluntary movements in his phantom he might be able to unclench it during the spasms,” Ramachandran wrote in his report. “To achieve this, we used the mirror box to convey a visual illusion to the patient that his phantom arm had been resurrected.”
A small study of five patients with phantom limb pain found four were able to unclench their phantom hands with help from the mirror box, bringing considerable relief.
It’s unclear what type of treatment Copeland is getting for her pain, but “nothing really helps her pain much,” according to her father. “She has struggled mightily.”
Copeland is also struggling with the slow pace of her physical recovery and her inability to do things most people take for granted, her father wrote.
“She was lashing out at her caregivers, she was in pain, she was sick to her stomach, she was unable to tend to her own basic needs and she was very unhappy,” Andy Copeland wrote. “She had every right to be unhappy.”
But with a little prayer and meditation, she was “overcome by peace.”
“She knew that many things were beyond her control and that fighting those who cared for her was not the solution,” Andy Copeland wrote. “She knew that anger was not the answer. She knows that God is in control.”