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Phantom limb pain

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

  • Pain in your limb even though it is physically not there
  • 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 (telescoping)

What to Expect

These feeling 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. You may feel:

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

Some things may make phantom pain worse, such as:

  • Being too tired
  • Putting too much pressure on the stump or parts of the arm or leg that are 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 health care provider if you can take acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin), or other medicines that help with pain.

These following 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 are 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 rubbing your stump.

Alternative Names

Amputation - phantom limb

References

Bang MS, Jung SH. Phantom limb pain. In: Frontera, WR, Silver JK, Rizzo TD, eds. Essentials of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 107.

Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Defense. VA/DoD clinical practice guideline for management for rehabilitation of lower limb amputation. January 2008. www.healthquality.va.gov/amputation/amp_sum_508.pdf. Accessed May 16, 2016.

Dinakar P. Principles of pain management. In: Daroff RB, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2015:chap 54.

Nikolajsen L, Springer JS, Haroutiunian S. Phantom limb pain. In: Benzon HT, Rathmell JP, Wu Cl, Turk DC, Argoff CE, Hurley RW, eds. Practical Management of Pain. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2014:chap 26.

Review Date 4/17/2016

Updated by: C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, San Francisco, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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