How to Manage Phantom Limb Pain

how to manage phantom limb pain

Overview

Phantom Limb Pain (PLP) refers to the pain that the one feels from a limb that is no longer there. The most common limb pain is from an amputated arm or from an amputated leg. The pain is considered to be a post-amputation phenomenon where doctors used to believe that PLP is only affecting the person psychologically but experts now consider it as a real sensation.

The painful sensation differs from person to person. For some people, it may get better without treatments a few weeks after the amputation surgery. However, it can be severe and long-lasting for others.

Cause of Phantom Limb Pain

Phantom Limb Pain (PLP) can be quite a handful to manage since unlike pain from a wound or physical trauma, it is said to be caused by mixed signals from the brain or spinal cord. Unlike other pain, PLP can be triggered by certain activities or conditions such as:

  • Cold
  • Herpes Zoster
  • Change in barometric pressure
  • Cigarette Smoking
  • Angina
  • Sexual Intercourse
  • Urination
  • Defecation
  • Touch

Phantom Pain Treatment

According to the Amputee Coalition of America, there are two treatments available in dealing with Phantom Limb Pain; medications and non-medication. It takes a multipronged approach in treating PLP which means a combination of the two treatments which is also similar in treating other painful conditions.

For example, with a broken arm, you are expected to take narcotic pain medication with leg elevation and cold compress. In PLP management, medications will be taken to directly interrupt that pain signals in the brain or spinal cord with non-medication therapies to help the brain in interpreting PLP signals.

Managing phantom limb pain can be challenging and people might be reluctant to seek treatment for the fear of being considered as “crazy”. It is important to note that PLP is common with 80% of the amputee population worldwide experiencing the sensation according to the Amputee Coalition of America. Here’s how to manage Phantom Limb Pain:

Medications for PLP Management

There are different kinds of medication that help in decreasing pain for different kinds of pain sensations. Medicines from other conditions from depression to epilepsy may give some relief from the pain by changing chemicals in the body that sends pain signals and treat nerve pain. In phantom limb pain management, the following medication categories work best in combination with other medication and non-medication treatments:

  • NSAIDs or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Beta-blockers
  • Opioids
  • Antidepressants
  • Anticonvulsants

Non-medication for PLP Management

Doctors may recommend a combination of non-medication treatments especially if the prescribed medicines don’t provide enough relief. The following alternative/complementary therapies might be helpful in reducing pain from the phantom limb:

  • Spinal Cord Stimulation – electrodes are placed over the spinal cord that will release electric pulses that will mask pain signals before it reaches the brain
  • Brain Stimulation – electrodes are placed over specific spots on the brain that will release electric impulses to mask pain signals as it reaches the brain.
  • Revision Surgery – since some of PLP cases are related to nerve pain in the surrounding area, surgery on the stump may be recommended.
  • Acupuncture – an expert or trained practitioner will place tiny needles to specific spots on the skin that prompts the body to release pain-relieving chemicals.
  • Mirror Box Therapy – involves mirrors where the brain is tricked into thinking you have both limbs during therapy exercises.
  • Nerve Stimulations – TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) devices send weak electrical currents on sticky patches attached to the skin that interrupt pain signals before they reach the brain.
  • Use of a shrinker – refers to a sock-like bandage that compresses a remaining stump after an operation.
  • Biofeedback – refers to the process of electronic monitoring of a normal or automatic body function to be controlled voluntarily.
  • Massage on the Residual limp
  • Music
  • Psychiatric help

Final Thoughts

Phantom Limb Pain can be hard to manage. There is a number of treatment options to choose from to help alleviate the pain. If you have problems managing your pain, it is best if you seek professional help from the experts. If you’re looking for a pain management specialist in New Jersey, Dr. Ronak Patel can help you. All you need to do is to set up an appointment with him by calling his office at (609) 269-4451.