Phantom Pain

What is Phantom Limb Pain?

Phantom Limb Pain or PLP is one of the more strange/frustrating things we have to deal with as amputees. I remember waking up after amputation and feeling so frustrated with the pain I still felt in the calf I had just departed from. The feeling was intense and to this day can still catch me off guard at the right times. Over time, as I learned more about my body and how it would respond to different triggers, I have been able to get more control over my PLP. But that is not to say I don’t have it at all… at the time of writing this I’m running on two hours of sleep. Battling electric spikes and nails in my toes all night is nothing new, especially in the spring and fall when the weather is making its drastic changes.

I have had Doctors explain PLP as your brain searching for your missing limb. It is likely a result of mixed signals coming from our brain or spinal chord. Phantom Pain is hard to quantify. Two amputees could be talking about their PLP, and to them it feels like they’re talking about the same thing. But in reality they are feeling very different things. It’s just hard to really know. We do know that there can be a number of different triggers for PLP.

Some of these triggers can include: Touch, Urination/Defecation, Sexual Intercourse, Nicotine, Changes in Barometric Pressure, and Exposure to Cold. To name a few… I know for me the changes in pressure is the biggest trigger, and once that starts urination will fire it off for sure (sorry if that is too much info). Learning what triggers your Phantom Limb Pain is the biggest key in treating it, I have learned.

Treating Phantom Limb Pain

Medications for PLP

Establishing a plan with your Doctor is key. In order to get the most effective treatment. There are a number of different medications being used to treat PLP today. These medications are used to specifically interrupt the pain signals in your brain or spinal cord. Some categories of medications you could be prescribed include:

  • Acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Opioids (narcotic pain medications)
  • Antidepressants
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Beta-blockers
  • Muscle relaxants

Therapies for PLP

Medications may not be the answer for everyone, or may not be the answer on their own. There are a multitude of other therapies that amputees have found beneficial for treating their PLP, including:

  • Acupuncture
  • Massage of the residual limb
  • Use of a shrinker
  • Repositioning of the residual limb by propping on a pillow or cushion
  • Mirror box therapy
  • Biofeedback
  • TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation)
  • Virtual reality therapy
  • Imagery
  • Music

Phantom Limb Pain + You

I have found that a combination of medication and different therapies works well for me. Especially, a TENS unit on the nights that get really bad.  No two amputees are the same. Therefore, What works for treating my PLP may end up being a trigger for you! The only way to know is to test it. Pay attention when you have spikes in PLP. Note what you may have eaten that day, what the weather was like, or how much physical activity you may have done. All of these things can contribute to your PLP, and also be a solution. Be sure to speak with your Doctor if you’re experiencing Phantom Limb Pain.

For more information, check out the link to the amputee coalition page below: