What Causes Phantom Pain?

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  • Written By: Shannon Kietzman
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2019
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Phantom pain is a medical condition that occurs after a person has lost a limb. In some cases, a person who has lost an eye, a breast, or another body part may also experience phantom pain. After the limb is gone, a person with phantom pain still feels as if the limb is there. This includes feeling all of the pain and discomfort associated with it.

Experiencing phantom pain in a limb after it is amputated is a fairly common occurrence. For some people with phantom pain, the pain gradually gets better over time without any kind of special treatment. In other people, coping with the pain and overcoming it can be a challenge.

Phantom pain can occur in a variety of areas around the amputated site. Phantom limb pain, for example, is experienced as though the pain is in the limb that has been lost. Another type of phantom pain is stump pain, also referred to as residual limb pain. With this phenomenon, the person experiences discomfort in the area where the amputation occurred.

A third form of phantom pain is phantom limb sensation. In this case, the person feels as if the limb that was amputated is still there. Although this may not be painful, it can be uncomfortable and cause a tingling, burning, or itching sensation. Usually, individuals suffering from phantom pain are unable to predict when the pain will occur or which type of pain they will experience.


Phantom pain was once believed to be caused entirely by psychological distress. Researchers now know this is not true. Although researchers are still not entirely sure of the physical causes of phantom pain, they have several different theories.

One theory is that phantom pain is caused by changes made to the circuitry of the nerves. For this reason, nerve damage and injuries tend to increase the likelihood of feeling phantom pain. It appears that the brain’s nerve cells make new connections after an amputation, which may have an impact on phantom pain.

Individuals who experienced pain in a limb before amputation also appear to be at greater risk of developing phantom pain after its removal. This is particularly true immediately following the amputation. Researchers believe this is because the brain retains the memory of the pain and continues sending pain signals after the limb is gone.

Amputations made in response to blood clots also appear to increase the likelihood of phantom pain. It is believed that this is because the blood clot reduces the amount of oxygen that gets to the tissues, which causes the tissue to take longer to heal. In some cases, it never becomes healthy tissue.

Neuroma, a growth that sometimes forms at the end of an amputated stump, can also lead to phantom pain. It may also be triggered by changes in the weather, use of an artificial limb, pressure on the remaining limb, fatigue, and emotional stress.


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