Phantom limb pain is an issue that nearly 80% of all amputees have experienced. The pain is often described as stabbing, burning, stinging or cramping, and the onset typically occurs within the first three years following the amputation. For some, phantom pain can be an inconvenience that occasionally flares up. For others, it becomes a debilitating and chronic condition.
Modern medicine has made strides towards understanding the phenomenon. It is believed that the pain originates in the brain, not in the nerve endings surrounding the amputated site as originally believed. Researchers theorize that the brain's efforts to communicate with and to control the missing limb produces phantom sensations. Commands are being sent by the brain through the nervous system but the pathway has been interrupted by the limb loss. The message cannot reach its destination and manifests in painful sensations.
A myriad of treatment options exist for minimizing phantom limb pain. Physicians can prescribe medications ranging from anti-convulsants to narcotics. Unfortunately, many pharmaceutical treatments result in uncomfortable side effects. Mirror Therapy has proved effective for many amputees. We explored Mirror Therapy in this blog several months ago and the post can be read in the archives.
Many amputees who have tried acupuncture for the treatment of phantom limb pain have reported positive results. Acupuncture is an ancient medical practice that has gained popularity for the treatment of a myriad of ailments, primarily pain related. Physicians and researchers are beginning to embrace the treatment as an effective option.
Those unfamiliar with acupuncture often believe that needles are positioned in the tissue of the residual limb. Professional acupuncturists warn that in order to be effective, the residual limb should not be physically manipulated during the procedure. When performed by a qualified professional, needles are never placed into the tissue around the amputated site.
Acupuncture is commonly performed on the scalp or on the earlobes when treating phantom limb sensation. Although researchers do not fully understand how acupuncture works, the scalp and earlobes have long been accepted as the primary treatment path for pain management. Needles are subcutaneously placed strategically on the scalp or earlobes of the amputee. The needles are turned periodically throughout the session and are in place from 10 to 30 minutes.
Many amputees report favorable results within two hours of treatment, and the effects can last for several days to weeks. Depending upon the severity of the pain, most acupuncturists recommend two visits a week until the pain is under control. Each session takes approximately 40 minutes.
A phone survey of three acupuncturists in our region was conducted. All three clinics claim success treating phantom limb pain. After asking about the site utilized for acupuncture treatment, I was put in contact directly with practitioners at two of the clinics. Both acupuncturists reiterated that the procedure should never occur on the residual limb. One acupuncturist cautioned that if the residual limb was proposed as the treatment site, the amputee should seek treatment elsewhere.
Amputees have reported the successful reduction in phantom limb pain using acupuncture. Although researchers don't fully understand how the treatment works, there is little debate that it can be an effective option for many amputees. If you are plagued by phantom limb pain, acupuncture might be worth a try!