What is phantom pain?

Updated at: Sep 04, 2015
What is phantom pain?

Phantom pain refers to pain that comes from a body part that's no longer there. Pain improves with time without treatment, whereas others can be a challenge.

Editorial Team
PainWritten by: Editorial TeamPublished at: Feb 01, 2013

Phantom pain refers to pain that seems to come from a body part that's no longer there. According to experts, these are real sensations that originate in the spinal cord and brain. Phantom pain mostly occurs in people who have had an arm or leg removed, but it may arise even after surgeries to remove other body parts such as the breast, penis, eye or tongue. In some people, the pain can improve with time without any treatment, whereas in others treatment of pain can be a challenge.

phantom pain


The exact cause of phantom pain is not known. It probably originates in the spinal cord and brain.

During certain imaging tests on the brain such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or positron emission tomography (PET), this master organ shows significant changes in the functioning when an individual experiences phantom pain. It still remains a mystery that why the brain reacts in this abnormal fashion but some experts are of the opinion that an amputation causes the brain and certain sections of the spine to lose out the feedback from the amputed limb causing them to react and experience pain.


Other factors of phantom pain

Other factors that probably contribute to phantom pain are:

  •     Damaged nerve endings at the site of the amputation.
  •     Scar tissue at the site of the amputation.
  •     Physical memory of pre-amputation pain in the affected area.


Several people after amputation of a limb have a feeling that their amputated limb is still there (phantom limb). Similar feeling of phantom limb sensation has been reported by people who were born without limbs. People report feeling cold, warmth, itchiness or tingling sensation in their phantom limb.


Characteristic features of phantom pain

Tests and diagnosis

Phantom pain can be defined as pain that comes from a body part that no longer remains.

The characteristics features of phantom pain are:

  • Starts within few days after amputation.
  • Tendency to come and go rather than being continuous.
  • Feels like it is coming from the part of the limb that is farthest from the body, such as the foot of an amputated leg.
  • Characteristics of pain are shooting, stabbing, boring, squeezing, throbbing or burning.
  • Trigger factors include weather changes, pressure on the remaining part of the limb or emotional stress.

There are no medical tests to confirm the diagnosis of phantom pain. It is a clinical diagnosis, doctors can identify the condition by taking a comprehensive history about your symptoms and the circumstances (such as trauma or surgery) that occurred before the pain started. A precise description of your pain can help your doctor pinpoint your problem.


Difference between phantom pain and stump pain

Your doctor will try to distinguish phantom pain from stump pain. Stump pain is caused by neuromas (nerve sprouts from the ends of damaged or cut nerves), undue compression, infection, or recurrence of the underlying disease.



Finding a correct treatment to relieve your phantom pain can be a challenge. Treatment options for phantom pain include:

  • Medications.
  • Noninvasive therapies include acupuncture or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS).
  • Invasive option such as injections or implanted devices, surgery is usually the last resort.


There are no medications specifically for treatment of phantom pain. Drugs used for treatment of various other pains have been found to be helpful in this case.


Image source: Getty

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