For those individuals that suffer from the loss of a limb coming to terms with a new handicap usually requires a period of adjustment. Learning to alter the way in which certain tasks are carried out without the use of certain limbs can be a challenge particularly in cases of leg amputations where individuals have to learn to walk with prosthetic limbs. Amputees have to deal with the loss of a part of their bodies but in many cases the sensation or feeling of the amputated limb is still present.
This phenomenon is known as a ‘phantom limb’ and around 80% of amputees experience some form of this. The brain insists that the amputated part of the body is still attached giving the amputee sensations in amputated limbs. For many who experience these phantom sensations feelings become more infrequent with time and eventually disappear in the majority of cases.
Unfortunately for those who experience these sensations the feelings are almost always painful, and can range from feeling pain in an eye that has already been removed or toothache from nonexistent teeth. The most famous cases of phantom limbs involve individuals with amputated arms.
Amputees can experience an insatiable itch in the missing limb, and many feel extreme discomfort or even chronic pain. In most cases, pain killers and surgical treatment have no effect. The origins of such pain is not fully understood by medical professionals so current treatments tend to be limited to standard pain medication
Many studies have been conducted into why the brain behaves the way it does when faced with a missing limb. Research has found that in amputees who experience strong phantom pain, the brain’s response to hand movement was indistinguishable from that seen in people with intact limbs. Although research is continuing to find solutions to this painful problem, one rather simple form of treatment has seen some positive results in patients experiencing pain.
Since the mid 1990’s neuroscientist Vilynaur S Ramachandran has worked on using mirrors to treat all kinds of diseases and syndromes, and the use of mirrors to treat phantom limb pain appears to have worked in some cases. A patient who felt his phantom hand was always agonizingly clenched had a mirror placed between his arms.
He was then asked to move both his phantom and health limb simultaneously, while looking at the reflection of the healthy limb, effectively fooling his brain into thinking his phantom limb was moving in a normal way. Almost immediately his phantom hand unclenched and the pain started to leave. By creating an intense sensory conflict the brain can be convinced to change its behavior and stop causing the pain.
Research like this is helping scientists understand the brain and its relationship with amputated limbs, giving people who suffer from phantom pain a better chance of being treated for their pain.
This post was written by Helen Grieves of Grieves Solicitors in the UK. Helen deals with a wide range of personal injury compensation claims, including claims for loss of limbs, and contributes to a number of health and legal blogs.