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What is a Phantom Limb?

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  • Written By: Alex Tree
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 17 August 2016
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A phantom limb is the feeling that a missing limb or organ is still attached to the body. The person usually feels as if the limb moves like normal and is even capable of gesturing or being in pain. Phantom limb syndrome occurs in the majority of people who have a limb amputated, though the attacks generally come and go. Many people with this syndrome report that they feel pain in the limb, that the limb feels stunted and twisted, or both. In most cases, the attacks are most frequent right after the limb, eye, or tooth is removed, and they become increasingly rare as time goes on.

The symptoms of this syndrome differ from person to person, usually depending on how and when he or she lost the body part. If someone is born without limbs, he or she normally feels a different sensation than someone who is paralyzed or had their limb amputated. Also, someone who was amputated upon within the month may have much more frequent phantom limb syndrome symptoms than someone who was amputated upon several decades ago. In some cases, however, the person rarely or never feels pain at all, though he or she still feels the previously attached limb or organ.

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Only theories exist as to why phantom limb syndrome presents itself. One theory is that the nerve endings of the amputated or missing limb send nonsense signals to the brain, which becomes confused and decides that those signals are probably because of pain. Unfortunately, this theory has not been proved, and researchers are still investigating the cause.

Many methods of treatment may come into play when dealing with a phantom limb. The use of drugs such as antidepressants and the administration of hypnosis and acupuncture are fairly common. When a patient is experiencing pain or discomfort in a phantom limb due to the feeling of it being paralyzed or in some sort of uncomfortable position, a treatment referred to as the mirror box is sometimes utilized. The idea is that the brain thinks that the phantom limb is paralyzed or in a disabled state because it can visually identify that it is not moving or that the limb was in a negative state while it was still attached to the body. A mirror box allows the patient to see two limbs when there is actually only one, but move both limbs in a comfortable way and receive visual feedback, thus relieving the pain in the phantom limb.

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