Coping With the Loss of a Limb
by Maria Adams, MS, MPH, RD
Losing all or part of a limb is a life-changing event. It can cause grief, pain, and a change in how you perceive yourself.
When you lose a limb, you lose part of your physical self. Any loss can lead to a period of grief. It always varies from person person, but most will experience 5 stages of grief:
Some may pass through each stage quickly. Others may get stuck in one stage or skip others. The stages may also happen in different order. The important thing is to realize that everyone moves through grief in their own way. There is no wrong way or specific timeline.
Problem can occur when someone gets stuck. A care team can help if grief is stopping a return to everyday life. Age, the area of loss, and cause may all play a role in reaction. For example, a sudden loss to a trauma may cause more intense denial than those with a long illness. People in denial may be less likely to seek help they need to move forward. Everyone needs time to mourn in their own way. Be on the lookout for depression that lasts more than 2 straight weeks. This may need medical care. Counseling or support groups may help.
How we see our bodies can affect our self worth. This can also affect how we interact with others. It is common to compare ourselves to what we think is a perfect body. Anything we see as a flaw becomes far more important than they actually are.
Age can again play a role. Children may feel different from their peers. This may make them unhappy about school or group activities. Adults may find that their negative self-image affects their relationships. If you don't feel good about yourself it is hard to enjoy time with others or feel confident at work. It can also affect sexual relationships. Avoiding others can increase the chance of depression and decrease quality of life.
Problems with body image come from our own thoughts. The first step is to be kinder to yourself. Be aware of harmful thoughts. Most are unkind exaggerations. Instead, focus on positive things, like "I'm a good cook, I'm a good friend". Keep good people around you. Spend less time with people who are negative. Challenge yourself to do something that you may not have done because of body image. The more you grow the easier it will be.
An amputation can be a major life change. It is normal to need some time to adjust. Resist the urge to isolate yourself. Reach out for help when you need to. During this time:
American Physical Therapy Association
Amputee Coalition of America
Amputee Coalition of Canada
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
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Accessed January 4, 2019.
Fisher K, Hanspal RS, et al. Return to work after lower limb amputation. Int J Rehabil Res. 2003;26(1):51-56.
Gallagher P, MacLachlan M. Psychological adjustment and coping in adults with prosthetic limbs. Behavioral Medicine. 1999;25(3):117-124.
Raising low self esteem. NHS website. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/raising-low-self-esteem/. Updated March 31, 2017. Accessed January 4, 2019.
Wetterhahn KA, Hanson C, et al. Effect of participation in physical activity on body image of amputees. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2002;81(3):194-201.
Last reviewed January 2019 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 1/4/2019
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