Can phantom limb pain really be treated with a prosthesis? Regular prosthesis wear and new innovative myoelectric prosthetic devices appear promising for amputees.
Studies estimate that 80% of amputees suffer from phantom limb pain. While phantom limb pain is most commonly experienced following the amputation of an arm or a leg, it can occur with any limb amputation. Phantom limb pain has been notoriously difficult to treat with therapy, as no one solution works for every amputee and even those who experience relief with medication run the risk of addiction. Fortunately, new technologies for treating and managing this pain have been promising, such as those that help patients to reduce their phantom limb pain with a prosthesis.
What Causes Phantom Limb Pain?
Each case of phantom limb pain is different, and only a doctor will be able to determine exactly what’s causing and triggering the sensations of your pain. However, phantom limb pain is typically felt in the remaining part of the limb and caused by a pre-existing condition or something that occurred during the amputation. Specifically, some of the most common causes include:
- decreased blood supply to the limb (typically occurs during surgery)
- entrapments of the nerves found in scar tissue
- a previous medical condition, such as diabetes or peripheral arterial disease (PAD)
It has also been hypothesized that phantom limb pain may be caused by a lack of feedback between the remaining limb and the brain. Specifically, parts of the brain that were previously responsible for controlling the limb now take over the processing of other stimuli in the body. This leads to over-stimulation and stretching, tightening, burning, cramping, crushing, or shooting pain.
Traditional Treatment Options
Unfortunately, phantom limb pain is very difficult to treat. Most people only find relief by taking high-strength painkillers or other medications. However, this poses a problem because these high-dosage pain medications inherently come with their own risks and side effects. Other treatments options, such as psychotherapy and electrical stimulation, can become expensive if you need them consistently.
Managing Phantom Limb Pain With Prosthetics
Because of their direct contact with the amputation site, prosthetic devices themselves can act as a therapeutic technique for managing phantom limb pain. Strategic bandaging and shrinker socks apply even pressure on the remaining limb, which may help to reduce or alleviate your pain. In addition to improving circulation, wearing your artificial prosthetic limb and moving around may also help to alleviate phantom limb pain by stimulating nerves and blood flow.
One treatment option is that of an innovative prosthetic device that actually enables feedback between the artificial limb and the brain itself, thus solving the problem of over-stimulation. This device is known as a myoelectric prosthesis.
Specifically, these new prosthetic devices work through the use of electronic sensors usually located along the muscle belly of the intact residual limb musculature. These sensors detect minute nerve, muscle, and EMG activity that is translated to electric motors to control movements of the artificial limb.
Studies have shown that this ability of the prosthesis to draw upon the same brain resources—or neural impulses—that once controlled the anatomical limb can alleviate phantom limb sensation. The myoelectric technology enables the user to visualize the amputated limb and engage the areas of the brain that are responsible for limb movement. Because the brain processes transmissions from electrode sites in the artificial limb much like it does with a real limb, phantom pain will not be as prevalent.
Doctors and surgeons continue to encourage studies on managing and reducing phantom limb pain with the use of alternative methods such as prosthetics. While more studies certainly need to be done, it seems that amputees living with phantom limb pain have more assistive options.
If you or someone you know is dealing with phantom limb pain, call 501-683-8889 or contact Horton’s Orthotics & Prosthetics to learn more about treating phantom limb pain with a prosthesis. You can also find support with peer group meetings through A.B.L.E. – Amputees Beyond Life’s Expectations.Download Prosthetics 101