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How to cope with phantom limb pain

When an auto accident or other catastrophic event causes the loss of a limb to amputation, physical and psychological recovery take a long time. The patient must deal with not only the initial trauma, but also with the necessity of adapting to his or her “new normal” that usually includes learning how to perform tasks and functions with a prosthesis. In addition, US News reports that as many as 95% of amputees suffer from phantom limb pain. This phenomenon gets its name from the fact that the pain seems to come from the limb that the patient no longer has.

Per the Mayo Clinic, physicians originally believed that PLP was psychological, although quite real. Now, however, they believe that PLP results from mix-ups in the signals passing between the brain and spinal cord.

PLP symptoms

The first PLP symptoms usually appear within a week of the amputation. For some, however, they do not begin until months afterwards. Either way, symptoms include the following painful sensations:

  • Shooting pain
  • Stabbing pain
  • Crushing pain
  • Throbbing
  • Burning
  • Cramping

Oftentimes the pain, which can be either intermittent or continuous, seems to come from the body part most distant from the amputation site. For example, patients who have lost a leg report pain in their missing foot far more often than in their missing leg.

Pain management

Most amputees find that over-the-counter pain relievers containing acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen sodium help alleviate their light to moderate PLP. For those who experience severe pain, however, a prescription antidepressant, anticonvulsant, narcotic or anesthetic may become necessary.

Physicians recommend the following lifestyle remedies to reduce PLP:

  • Engaging in distractions such as listening to music, reading, etc.
  • Staying physically active
  • Practicing relaxation techniques
  • Seeking support from family, friends or an amputee support group

Medical therapies for PLP include acupuncture, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, spinal cord stimulation and mirror box therapy.

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