Phantom Pain

Can medical cannabis help people with this condition? Find out more below. 

What is Phantom Pain?

Phantom pain is the sensation of pain or discomfort in a part of the body that has been amputated or lost. This type of pain can be described as a feeling of tingling, burning, itching, or pressure in the missing limb. Phantom pain can be very real and can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life.

Phantom pain is thought to occur because the brain continues to receive signals from the nerves that used to be connected to the missing limb. These signals can be interpreted by the brain as pain, even though there is no physical source of the pain.

Phantom pain can be a challenging condition to manage, but there are treatments available that can help reduce the severity of the pain. These treatments may include medications, nerve blocks, physical therapy, and other types of pain management techniques. It is important for individuals experiencing phantom pain to talk to their healthcare provider about their symptoms and the available treatment options.

What causes it?

The exact cause of phantom pain is not fully understood, but it is thought to be related to changes in the nervous system following amputation or loss of a body part. The nerves that used to send signals from the amputated or lost limb to the brain are still active, and the brain continues to interpret these signals as if the limb were still present. This misinterpretation can result in the sensation of pain or discomfort in the missing limb, which is known as phantom pain.

Other factors that may contribute to the development of phantom pain include the individual’s pain sensitivity, the level of amputation, the cause of the amputation, and other medical conditions that may affect the nervous system.

How common is it?

Phantom pain is a relatively common condition, affecting up to 80% of people who have had an amputation. The severity and frequency of phantom pain can vary widely, with some people experiencing mild discomfort and others experiencing severe, debilitating pain. Phantom pain can occur immediately following amputation or may develop weeks, months, or even years later.

Are there types/stages?

Yes, there are different types and stages of phantom pain. Here are some of the common ones:

  1. Residual Limb Pain: This type of phantom pain is felt in the remaining part of the amputated limb.
  2. Stump Pain: This phantom pain is felt in the stump or the remaining part of the amputated limb.
  3. Phantom Sensations: These are sensations in the missing limb, such as tingling, itching, or pressure.
  4. Phantom Pain: This type of phantom pain is the sensation of pain in the missing limb. It can be described as burning, cramping, shooting, or stabbing pain.

The stages of phantom pain can vary from person to person, and some people may experience all stages, while others may only experience one or two. The stages are:

  1. The acute stage occurs immediately after the amputation and can last a few days to several weeks.
  2. Subacute stage: This happens several weeks to several months after the amputation.
  3. The chronic stage is characterized by persistent, long-term phantom pain lasting several years.

Signs & Symptoms

The main signs and symptoms of phantom pain include:

  • Pain or discomfort in the missing limb: This is the primary symptom of phantom pain, and it can be described as burning, cramping, shooting, or stabbing pain.
  • Phantom sensations: These are sensations felt in the missing limb, such as tingling, itching, or pressure.
  • Changes in temperature or sensitivity: Some people may experience changes in temperature or sensitivity in the area where the limb used to be.
  • Muscle spasms or contractions: Some people may experience muscle spasms or contractions in the residual limb.
  • Emotional distress: Phantom pain can be very distressing, leading to anxiety, depression, or other emotional disturbances.
  • Difficulty sleeping: Phantom pain can make falling or staying asleep difficult, leading to sleep disturbances.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Diagnosing phantom pain usually involves a physical exam and a review of the individual’s medical history. The healthcare provider will ask about the individual’s symptoms, including the type, frequency, and severity of pain. They may also perform imaging tests, such as X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to rule out other causes of pain.

Treating phantom pain may involve a combination of medications, therapy, and other pain management techniques. Here are some of the common treatments for phantom pain:

  1. Medications: Prescription pain medications, such as opioids, may be used to manage the pain associated with phantom pain. Other medications, such as antidepressants or anticonvulsants, may also help manage the pain and improve mood.
  2. Nerve blocks involve injecting a local anesthetic into the area where the nerves are located. This can help reduce pain and improve function.
  3. Physical therapy: Physical therapy can help improve mobility and function in the residual limb. This can help reduce pain and improve quality of life.
  4. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS): TENS involves using a small device that delivers electrical impulses to the skin. This can help reduce pain and improve function.
  5. Mirror therapy involves using a mirror to create the illusion of a complete limb. This can help reduce pain and improve function.
  6. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT involves counseling and other techniques to help individuals cope with phantom pain’s emotional and psychological effects.

Can medical cannabis help?

Medical marijuana has been shown to be effective in treating various types of chronic pain, including phantom pain. The compounds in marijuana, known as cannabinoids, interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system to help regulate pain and inflammation. Here are some of the ways that medical marijuana could help with phantom pain:

  • Pain relief: Marijuana effectively reduces pain, including neuropathic pain associated with phantom pain.
  • Anti-inflammatory effects: Marijuana has anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce inflammation associated with phantom pain.
  • Muscle relaxation: Marijuana can help relax muscles, benefiting individuals experiencing muscle spasms or contractions associated with phantom pain.
  • Improved sleep: Marijuana can help improve sleep, which can benefit individuals experiencing difficulty sleeping due to phantom pain.
  • Reduced anxiety and depression: Marijuana can help reduce anxiety and depression, which are common psychological effects of phantom pain.

It is important to note that while medical marijuana may be an effective treatment option for some individuals with phantom pain, it may not be appropriate or effective for everyone. It is important to talk to a healthcare provider about the risks and benefits of using medical marijuana to manage phantom pain. Additionally, individuals should only use medical marijuana under the guidance of a healthcare provider and per local laws and regulations.

Last Updated: July 25, 2023

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