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Phantom limb syndrome is the feeling of sensations in a limb that has been removed. There may be feelings in the limb as if it were still attached to their body. This is because the brain continues to get messages from nerves that used to "feel" for the missing limb.
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The exact cause of phantom limb syndrome is unknown. It is thought that the sensations are due to the brain’s attempt to reorganize signals. The brain must rewire itself to adjust to the changes in the body.
Phantom limb syndrome is more common in adults than in children. Other factors that may increase your chance of developing phantom limb syndrome include:
The symptoms are felt in a limb that does not exist. Phantom limb syndrome may cause sensations of:
It is important to tell your care team if you have pain or other sensation after limb loss. Earlier treatment may improves the chances of success.
There is no medical test to diagnose phantom pain. You will be asked about your past health. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will want to know about the signs and symptoms. You may be asked about the amputation. Diagnosis can be made based on your symptoms.
Phantom limb syndrome is often brief. It can pass on its own over time. Others may have persistent pain. Treatment can be challenging for them. There is no one treatment plan that is best. Treatment will be chosen to help control specific symptoms. Options include:
Symptoms may be managed with medicine such as:
Electrical nerve stimulation may help calm nerve signals. Examples include:
The following have not shown consistent benefits. However, they may help with some symptoms.
Research is ongoing to better understand phantom limb syndrome. There are no clear answers for prevention right now.
Amputee Coalition of America
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Chahine L, Kanazi G, et al. Phantom limb syndrome: A review. Middle East J Anesthesiol. 2007;19(2):345-355.
Richardson C, Kulkarni J. A review of the management of phantom limb pain: challenges and solutions. J Pain Res. 2017;10:1861-1870.
Subedi G, Grossberg G. Phantom Limb Pain: Mechanisms and Treatment Approaches. Pain Res Treat. 2011; 2011: 864605. PMID: 22110933
Weeks SR, Anderson-Barnes VC, et al. Phantom limb pain: Theories and therapies. 2010;16(5):277-286.
Last reviewed January 2019 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Monica Zangwill, MD, MPH Last Updated: 1/8/2019