Why Do People Get Phantom Limb Syndrome?
The human body has an amazing capacity to adjust to a sudden change. When we lose a sense, our other senses usually compensate to make up for that loss. If we go through a trauma or face difficulty, we usually find ways to adapt. If we lose our hand, a hand surgeon can reattach it. For whatever reason, if we can’t walk, we can find mobility with stuff we invented. That is just how innovative we can be.
We also have the annoying/yet amazing capacity for our brains to trick ourselves. We can feel our cellphones vibrate against legs, even if they are not there. Our feet will attempt to climb up an extra step on a flight of stairs, only to realize that it never existed.
This extends to how our bodies adapt to missing arms, legs, hands, etc. We feel it, even if it is not there. Even to the extent where it is painful. It sounds impossible. After all, how can we feel pain over something that is not attached anymore? Let’s find out as we delve into the phenomenon known as…
Phantom Limb Syndrome
According to the United States National Library of Medicine, “Phantom limb syndrome is a condition in which patients experience sensations, whether painful or otherwise, in a limb that does not exist. It has been reported to occur in 80-100% of amputees, and typically has a chronic course, often resistant to treatment.”
So, it is the feeling of pain or any sensation in a limb that is absent, or not there. But the sensation of it being there along with pain does not accurately explain the extent of this condition. This ranges from the slightest of tingling to attempting to the outright perception of temperature, vibration, pressure, and even itching. People with this condition even try to pick things up with a hand that is no longer there or put weight on a non-existent foot. Another important thing to note about this condition can be found in not just people. Any animal lifeform can experience the phenomenon as well.
But where did it come from? Surely if this affects a good percentage of the population that experiences some form of limb loss, there is a record of it somewhere, right?
First Discovery of Phantom Limb Syndrome
While the condition has been around for as long as people have lost a limb and survived long enough to feel it, it was first recorded much later. The first person to give it a proper name was French surgeon, Ambrose Paire. In the mid-1500s, he practiced surgery and amputation during wartime, where patients who had their limbs amputated reported feeling pain in their arms and legs post-amputation.
Later, the term “phantom limb” was coined by physician Silas Mitchell in 1871. Another additional discovery of the condition was found in the late 1980s. Ronald Mezlak noted that people who were born with missing limbs like hands or feet could also go through the condition.
As of today, there is no clear consensus as to what the cause of phantom limb syndrome is. There is a running hypothesis that neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt and change, as well as junk input in the central nervous system is partially responsible. As well as the involvement of the brain and the peripheral nervous system.
What Hand Surgeons Do to Treat it
Say your hand had to go through an amputation for whatever reason, in the Birmingham, Al area. Or maybe you have some sort of condition that makes it harder to function. What can a hand surgeon do to help with the difficulty of the condition?
The truth is, while experts can try to treat the condition, there is no guarantee that it will work. In fact, there is no cure for it as it stands. The treatments that do exist might barely work at all. That being said, we still won’t give up. Hand surgeons in Birmingham, Al as well as other experts are still working hard to try and figure out the cause and effective treatment for phantom limb syndrome.
The only treatment that may present a shadow of a chance for success is mirror therapy. It allows for the patient to imagine motor control for the missing limb, by using the reflection as a focus. While it has its critics, it is an inexpensive tool that can help some patients at least visualize control of the opposite hand.