Phantom pain is when you feel pain in a part of the body that you no longer have.
Most often, these are members who are no longer there. This is specifically known as phantom limb pain. However, phantom pain is a more general condition and does not have to include the limbs.
Phantom pain can involve non-limb body parts that have been removed, such as your:
- the eyes
It may even include parts of the intestinal tract.
Phantom pain occurs after amputation or injury. Read on to learn more about the condition as well as treatment and prevention options.
The sensation of phantom pain can vary widely. Depending on the person, this may involve:
- tingling or tingling
- sharp pain, like pulling or stabbing
- sensations that feel like electric shocks
The exact cause of phantom pain is unclear, but it is thought to be related to:
Removal of a body part damages peripheral nerves. This can irritate and overexcite nerve endings, causing spontaneous sensations.
Your peripheral nerves lead to your spinal nerves, which are connected to your spinal cord.
When a peripheral nerve is damaged during amputation or injury, central sensitization can occur. It involves increased neural activity and sensitivity in the spinal cord, resulting in phantom pain.
After a part of the body is removed, the brain redirects the sensations of that part to another area of the body. This is called remapping or reordering.
As a result, you may experience pain in the missing body part when nerves are stimulated in the surrounding area.
In some cases, certain psychological conditions can trigger or contribute to phantom pain. These factors include:
Phantom pain may go away on its own after several months. But if the pain persists, there are several treatment options:
The following medications are used to manage phantom pain:
Certain medical therapies can also manage phantom pain:
- Transcutaneous nerve stimulation. This treatment, known as TENS, stimulates the nerves using electrical currents.
- Stimulation of the central nervous system. In this treatment, electrical signals stimulate the brain or spinal cord via implanted electrodes.
- Biofeedback. In biofeedback, electrodes are placed near the affected area. A specialist will teach you how to control certain functions in the zone.
In addition to medications and medical treatments, the following therapies may be used:
- Acupuncture. Acupuncture uses fine needles to stimulate certain areas of the body. Research into its benefits for phantom pain is still ongoing.
- Massage. Massaging the affected area can help relieve muscle tension. It is also useful for managing stress and anxiety.
- Mirror therapy. This therapy may be useful for certain types of phantom pain, including phantom limb pain. It uses a mirror box to reflect the healthy limb on the amputated side, which tricks the brain.
You can also try these home remedies to manage phantom pain:
- Reposition your body. If you have lost a limb, propping the area up on a pillow or cushion can help reduce phantom pain.
- Practice relaxation techniques. Since stress and anxiety can contribute to phantom pain, practicing relaxation techniques can help. This includes strategies like meditation, guided imagery, and breathing exercises.
- Enjoy your favorite hobbies. Activities like reading or playing music can help distract you from the pain. They can also help relieve stress and anxiety.
- Join support groups. Meeting people who have amputations or similar injuries in support groups can help you cope with your symptoms.
- Follow your treatment plan. It may take time to find a treatment plan that works for you. For best results, follow your doctor’s suggestions and report any concerns.
Phantom pain can develop immediately after a body part is removed. But sometimes it can take months or years to develop.
Consult a doctor as soon as you notice phantom pain or similar sensations. You should also see a doctor if you have phantom pain that:
- does not improve with treatment or remedies
- gets worse
- is serious or debilitating
Research into phantom pain prevention is still ongoing. However, some strategies can help minimize symptoms:
- Reduction of pre-amputation pain. High levels of pain before an amputation are associated with phantom pain. Focusing on pain management before amputation can help reduce risk.
- Pre-amputation consultation. For planned amputations, receiving counseling before the procedure is associated with lower levels of phantom pain.
- Different types of anesthesia. Phantom pain after amputation is related to general anesthesia. However, the risk is lower with different types of anesthesia, such as neuraxial anesthesia and peripheral nerve block.
- Management of depression. Depression after amputation or removal of a body part is a major contributor to phantom pain. Managing depression with medication and therapy can help.
Talk to your doctor about how to cope with depression or possible methods to reduce your risk of phantom pain.
Phantom pain is different from referred pain. While phantom pain involves a missing body part, referred pain involves two body parts you have.
In referred pain, pain in one part of your body causes pain in another part. For example, if you have a back injury, you may experience thigh or groin pain.
If you feel pain in a part of your body that you no longer have, it’s called phantom pain. It often involves amputated limbs, but it can also affect other areas, such as the eyes, nose or breasts.
Phantom pain can occur after a part of the body has been removed due to amputation or injury. The exact cause is unclear, but it could be related to nerve damage, central sensitization, or brain remapping. Psychological conditions such as depression and stress can also play a role.
Depending on your symptoms, phantom pain is treated with medication and medical treatment. Remedies like massage, relaxation, and recreation can also help.