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Phantom limb pain

What to Expect

After one of your limbs is amputated, you may feel as if the limb is still there. This is called phantom sensation. It may feel:

  • Tingly
  • Prickly
  • Numb
  • Hot or cold
  • Like your missing toes or fingers are moving
  • Like your missing limb is still there, or is in a funny position
  • Like your missing limb is getting shorter. This is called telescoping.

These sensations slowly get weaker and weaker. You should also feel them less often. They may not ever go away completely.

Pain in the missing part of the arm or leg is called phantom pain. It may feel like:

  • Sharp or shooting pain
  • Achy pain
  • Burning pain
  • Cramping pain

Phantom limb pain will lessen over time for most people.

Some things may make phantom pain worse:

  • Being too tired
  • Putting too much pressure on the part of the arm or leg that is still there
  • Changes in the weather
  • Stress
  • Infection
  • An artificial limb that does not fit properly
  • Poor blood flow
  • Swelling in the part of the arm or leg that is still there

Self-care

Try to relax in a way that works for you. Do deep breathing, or pretend to relax the missing arm or leg.

Reading, listening to music, or doing something that takes your mind off the pain may help. You may also try taking a warm bath -- if your surgery wound is completely healed.

Ask your doctor if you can take acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin, ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin), or other drugs that can help with pain.

These things may also help lessen phantom pain:

  • Keep the remaining part of your arm or leg warm.
  • Move or exercise the remaining part of your arm or leg.
  • If you are wearing your prosthesis, take it off. If you're not wearing it, put it on.
  • If you have swelling in the remaining part of your arm or leg, try wearing an elastic bandage.
  • Wear a shrinker sock or compression stocking.
  • Try gently tapping or gently rubbing your stump.

References

Bang MS, Jung SH. Phantom limb pain. In: Frontera, WR, Silver JK, eds. Essentials of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 1st ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Hanley & Belfus; 2002:chap 104.


Review Date: 6/15/2010
Reviewed By: C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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