Phantom Pain – The Mayo Clinic defines phantom pain as “pain that feels like it’s coming from a body part that’s no longer there”. It can come in the form of pain or sensations. Phantom pain is when you feel pain in a limb that is no longer there, while a phantom sensation is feeling that the limb is still there but not experiencing pain from it. It is thought that phantom pain comes from mixed signals from the brain. The brain loses the nerve signals from the missing body part, so the body is triggering a message to the brain that something is wrong.
Managing Phantom Pain – Without Drugs
I began doing Mirror Therapy around week 4 post-surgery. At that point my phantom pain was very bad and I was desperate to get relief. After a few weeks of faithfully practicing Mirror Therapy my phantom pain was significantly reduced.
Key factors for success with Mirror Therapy:
- Easy to do at home without a physical therapist
- Need the correct size mirror – needs to be long enough to see the full reflection of the remaining intact limb
- Practice it daily
- Each session should last for a minimum of 20 minutes
- Need to be completely focused on the image in the mirror
- Takes at least a full week to notice any improvement, so don’t give up after a day or two
Links for directions:
In the evening while relaxing use cold and heat therapy.
For twenty minutes ice the stump to reduce swelling.
Follow with twenty minutes of heat to open up the blood vessels and allow better blood flow. The heat feels so good after the ice.
I found a great product called the Polar Sleeve. The Polar Sleeve was designed for amputees and has two pockets inside a sleeve that fits around the stump, with two Velcro straps holding it in place. The pockets hold reusable cold/hot packets. The great thing about the Polar Sleeve is that it gives either cold or hot therapy around the entire stump. The packets are held in place, never sliding off, and if you need to get up for something, it goes with you.
Tactile therapy and massage can also help. This helps to focus the mind on the part of the limb that is still there.
I use a variety of items that have different textures.
- Tapping stump and residual limb with an empty paper towel roll
- Brushing the stump and residual limb with a hairbrush
- Buffing stump and residual limb with a soft stuffed animal
Gently massaging the stump for a few minutes is also very effective.
TENS Unit (While I liked the feeling when using the TENS Unit, I really didn’t feel it helped with pain. Some people do though, so give it a try)
Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. The TENS machines works by sending stimulating pulses across the surface of the skin and along the nerve strands. It helps prevent pain signals from reaching the brain. It also helps to stimulate your body to produce higher levels of its own natural painkillers (endorphins).
Exercise and Movement
Honestly, the best way I found to relieve my phantom pain was getting up and taking a walk. Of course to use this method you need to be able to use crutches or a walker.
Sitting all the time reduces blood flow and aids in pain. When you are up and moving around you have better blood flow which helps with the phantom pain.
Exercising the residual limb also helps in reducing phantom pain.
- Stretching the residual limb
- Moving the residual limb
- For BKA – flexing the knee
Find ways to keep busy and keep your mind active on other things.
Sitting around focusing and dwelling on the amputation only aids in focusing the brain on the phantom pain. Redirect the brain by stimulating it with other things.
I’m happy to say that by the 8 to 9 week period I was getting nice breaks in the phantom pain. It was not by accident; I was determined that I was not going to let the phantom pain get me. A lot of time and effort went into easing my phantom pain. I now have days and nights where the phantom pain is minimal and very tolerable.
Excellent video on phantom pain:
Amputee Coalition – http://www.amputee-coalition.org/
Wiggle Your Toes – http://wiggleyourtoes.org/
Limbs For Life – http://limbsforlife.org/