What Is Phantom Limb Pain And Does It Ever Go Away?

Dr. James Rathmell answers the question: 'Does Phantom Limb Pain Ever Go Away?'

— -- Question: What Is Phantom Limb Pain And Does It Ever Go Away?

Answer: Phantom Limb Pain is I guess best described as a phenomenon. It's an experience of pain in a limb that no longer exists, usually after amputation. A lot of the pain occurs or phantom pain occurs where the limb used to be. So if you were to have a traumatic amputation of a leg, a lower extremity, and you had a lot of pain in the foot before the amputation, either the foot was crushed or there was some infection, diabetic ulcer, something quite painful, it's not uncommon to continue to experience the pain even though the limb no longer exists.

What we think is happening there is there is a map for all of the parts of your body on the brain, on the cortex, the cerebral cortex itself. And it continues to relay some experience of where the limb used to be to you. So if it was painful before it was amputated, it appears as though there's a higher incidence of pain in that area afterwards.

Now does it last forever? The experience of phantom limb pain and phantom sensation -- some sensations are not painful, you experience the limb as though it were there, but it's not painful -- those sensations tend to change over time; sometimes they get better, sometimes they get worse, but often they're very, very long-lasting. And they can be amongst the most difficult types of pain to treat. We don't have good treatments at all for this type of pain; but it's not necessarily permanent. It can change and it can improve over time.

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