History of Phantom Limb Pain

History of Phantom Limb Pain

In the 16th Century, French military surgeon Ambriose Pare was the first to medically document the phenomena of phantom limb pain.

Lord Admiral Nelson experienced the common phantom limb pain of his fingers pressing into the palm of his missing arm.

In 1866, the short story “The Case of George Dedlow” was printed in the Atlantic monthly.  It tells of a young man who on awakening following battle trauma and surgery is unaware of his legs having been amputated.  He asks an orderly to massage his leg to relieve a cramp.

In 1871, Silas Weir Mitchell gave the first modern description of a post surgical  “ghost” occurring in an amputee.

Later, Dr Mitchell, the man who coined the phrase “phantom limb” reported that often following traumatic amputation (ie in an explosion) the phantom pains were often the same as that caused by the injuring accident.

In addition to phantom limbs, phantom penises (complete with phantom erections), phantom noses, phantom breasts and phantom menstrual cramps (following hysterectomy) have been recorded.  Also on record are: phantom chilblains, phantom arthritic pains and phantom paralysis and involuntary movements.

Outdated and generally unsuccessful treatments have included:

  • Dorsal rhizotomy:  surgical cutting of the nerve from the amputated limb where it connects to the spine.
  • Cordotomy:  Surgical cutting of nerves in the spinal cord itself.
  • Further amputation:  Shortening the stump still further and removal of nerve fibres and receptors.  This follows a pattern referred to by Ramachandran as “chasing the phantom” and is almost invariably unsuccessful.

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