Phantom Pain: Causes and Symptoms


April 13, 2021

Amputation brings about many challenges—the most affected being amputees who experience a condition known as phantom pain. Phantom pain, also known as phantom limb pain, is a condition that is characterized by a feeling of pain in the limb which you no longer have. The pain may occur in the form of a minor ache which may end up being severe.

That being said, here is a brief elucidation of what you need to know about phantom pain.

What are the Types of Phantom pain?

Residual Limb pain: Also called stump pain, residual limb pain is a type of phantom pain. Great research suggests that stump pain occurs in approximately half the number of people who have undergone an amputation.

It mainly occurs due to:

  • Infection
  • Tumor
  • Poor blood supply to the limb

What are the Causes of Phantom Pain?

The main cause of phantom pain is still unknown. However, some experts tend to believe that phantom pain is psychological. Similarly, it is thought to arise due to mixed signals from your brain or spinal cord. This occurs when the nerves in the part of your spinal cord and brain lose signals due to the detachment. Therefore, pain-which is the basic message- arises to signify that something is not right.

Another possible explanation of phantom pain can be attested to the remapping of the body’s sensory circuit to another body part. This means that the amputated body part cannot receive sensory information; instead, the information is referred to another body part. In this case, the referred body part may be the farthest part of the amputated limb.

Other possible causes of phantom pain include:

  • Damaged nerve endings
  • Scar tissue from the amputation surgery.
  • The physical memory of pre-amputation.

What are the Symptoms of Phantom Pain?

The symptoms which often characterize phantom pain include:

  • Pain described as burning, shooting, twisting, crushing, like an electric shock or like “pins and needles.”
  • Symptoms affecting the part of the limb farthest from the body
  • Incessant pain or at times you may experience pain that comes and goes

Other sensory feelings that you may experience from a body part that is no longer there include:

  • Itch
  • Vibration
  • Pressure
  • Temperature
  • Movement

What are the Risk Factors?

It is not always that phantom pain will develop after amputation. However, some of the risk factors which may expose you to phantom pain include:

  • Residual pain in remaining limb
  • Presence of precipitation pain
  • Upper extremity amputation

What are the Treatment Options?

Finding the right treatment for phantom pain can be a daunting task. However, physicians will undertake a multi pronged approach. This takes the form of medications coupled with noninvasive therapies. Also, surgery may be used as a last resort.


This involves the use of certain drugs to alleviate the pain. Some medications you may be subjected to include:

  • Antidepressants: Drugs such as tramadol, amitriptyline, and amitriptyline may help alleviate your pain by changing the chemicals in your body that send pain signals.
  • Narcotics: This involves using opioid medications such as codeine and morphine, which help control phantom pain.
  • Anticonvulsant: Although they are known for treating seizures, drugs such as gabapentin and carbamazepine can help relieve nerve pain.

Other medications which may also help with Phantom pain include:

  • Over the counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen
  • NMDA receptor antagonists

Medical Therapies

This involves treatment techniques designed to help alleviate the pain where medication is not enough. Such treatment includes:

  • Acupuncture: In this case, a qualified physician will insert stainless needless at different points in your body. This results in the release of pain-relieving chemicals.
  • Mirror box: This is a box designed to make it look like an amputated limb exists. It contains mirrors-one for the intact limb and one for the residual limb. Therefore, as you perform therapy exercises, you may tend to think that you have both limbs. Research suggests that while performing therapy exercises- while observing the missing limb moving- you may end up experiencing relief from phantom pain.
  • Spinal cord stimulation– In this case, your physician will insert electrodes along your spinal cord. This sends an electric current through them. As such, you may experience pain relief in some cases.


  • Brain stimulation: This procedure is similar to spinal cord stimulation. However, in this case, a surgeon places electrodes in the right spot in your brain using magnetic resonance imaging. Although it is yet to be treated as a definite approach, brain stimulation has been found to alleviate pain in selected individuals.
  • Revision surgery: A surgery on your stump is an option where your physician identifies the root of your problem being nerve pain.

Pain can hinder you from going on with your daily routine. Be sure to contact us for pain management.