When Royal Navy officer and British national hero Lord Nelson lost his arm in battle in 1797, he considered his “phantom limb pain” to be “direct proof of the existence of the soul.” Regardless of your spiritual leanings, you have to admit that being able to “feel” an arm or leg that isn’t there is a pretty extraordinary thing. Phantom limb syndrome following the loss of a limb involves way more than just “sensing” phantom pain: there are plenty of fascinating accounts in the medical literature that reveal the phantom limb phenomenon as further evidence of the extraordinary power of the human mind (or soul, if you’re into that).
While you recover after losing a limb, you might experience a number of “phantom” sensations, depending on how the limb was lost. Your phantom limb may wave involuntarily, or even “retain” the “memory” of a wedding ring or wristwatch. There’s even a chance you could lose both arms and still experience arthritis in your “phantom hands” in the winter. You could even lose the phantom after decades, only to regain it by rubbing on your stump, “releasing” it like a genie from a bottle. Read on for a detailed look into what the phantom limb phenomenon is all about.
Phantom Limbs Are Extraordinarily Common
Ramachandran says patients with phantom limbs “experience an amputated extremity as still present, and in some cases also experience pain or cramping.” And that’s only the beginning. . .
Sometimes Just a “Phantom Hand” Will “Dangle from the Stump”
One theory is that the hand is “over-represented” in the somatosensory cortex, the main sensory receptive area in the brain for the sense of touch, which is called “cortical magnification.” The lack of visual feedback from a phantom arm creates a “sensory conflict” that the brain deals with by “fading” it out, leaving the “over-represented” hands behind.
The Phantom Limb Could Hurt for Decades
Kids Seem Weirdly “Immune” to Phantom Limbs
Why? Experts think it may be because there has not been enough time “for the body image to consolidate” in younger kids.
Rubbing the Stump Can Bring Back a Lost Phantom Limb
These findings could help explain why the “widespread clinical opinion,” according to Dr. Ramachandran, is that neuromas (aka “pinched nerves”) are the “primary cause of phantom limbs.” Ramachandran argues that it’s more complicated than that, especially considering that people born without limbs also experience phantoms.
Phantom Limbs Can Get Stuck in Painful Poses
Inanimate Objects Can “Merge” with the Phantom Limb
Traumatic Limb Loss Creates More “Vivid” Phantoms
This is attributed to “pain memories” in traumatic cases and greater attention paid to the limb, pre-operation, in surgical cases. Painful phantoms, cruelly, also seem to persist longer than non-painful ones.
Involuntary Phantom Limb Movements Are Very Common
Phantom Limbs “Remember” Old Limb Pain
This phenomenon also extends to other body parts: there are reports of “phantom menstrual cramps” after hysterectomy and phantom “ulcer pains” after a partial gastrectomy (removal of all or part of the stomach).
Leprosy Patients Who Lose Limbs Don’t Get Phantoms
There is, however, an interesting little “footnote” to this fact: if the leprosy patient has to have their stump amputated, the entire phantom limb is often “resurrected”—not just a “phantom stump.”
An “Illusion” Can Treat Phantom Limb Pain
He placed a mirror in a cardboard box and instructed the patient to place his existing hand inside the box, next to the mirror. When the patient looked down at the mirror, the reflection of his existing hand stood in as a visual replacement of his phantom limb. The patient was told to imagine that the reflection was in fact the lost limb, and to practice clenching and unclenching his hand while looking in the mirror.
This simple little illusion proved surprisingly effective. This particular patient lost his phantom limb after two weeks of this treatment in what Dr. R called the first “successful amputation of a phantom limb.” Others, however, were not as fortunate: some patients reported “no effect whatsoever” and still others experienced “anatomically impossible positions” such as the hyperextension of a phantom finger.