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Ghost Pain / Phantom Pain

Ghost pain or phantom pain is just a perception of pain experienced by an individual in a body part that does not exist, eg. an amputated leg or a removed organ. It was earlier believed to be a completely psychological problem but recent studies have revealed that the sensation is real and originates in the spinal cord and brain. It may first occur immediately after a surgery, and then keep recurring sporadically. Phantom pain, after recurring for some time, stops on its own, and the problem is generally solved without any treatment. However, if it persists and keeps on occurring regularly, it is advisable to consult a doctor, and take the necessary treatment.

Characteristics of phantom pain

  • Sensation of pain during the first few days after amputation
  • Pain in the farthest part of the amputated organ
  • It may range from mild to severe
  • It may generate various sensations like stabbing, shooting, burning or throbbing pain
  • It may be triggered by weather changes or emotional stress

Causes
The exact cause of occurrence of phantom pain has not yet been found. Although the body part no longer exists, the nerve endings at the site of amputation continue to send signals of pain to the brain. These confusing signals make the brain think that the organ is still there. There are others who believe that the reason behind this kind of pain is different. When a particular organ has been removed, there is no question of it receiving sensory signals. These signals are, thus, refereed to some other organ. When this other organ is touched or nudged, the signals are perceived to be coming from the missing organ. This causes tangled sensory signals, resulting in the sensation of pain. The trauma caused due to the pain at the time of amputation can also lead to phantom pain.

Diagnosis
There are no laboratory tests or check-ups that can help to diagnose phantom pain. It can be identified only by observing the symptoms.

Treatment
Finding an effective mode of treatment for the condition may be difficult. However, the first step taken to treat this condition is the use various medications and alternative healing therapies. If the phantom pain is not cured by non-invasive techniques, implants or surgery may be advised.

  • Phantom pain may be treated through medication. Various anti-depressants, pain relievers, anti-convulsants, and narcotic pain relievers may be suggested. Sometimes, a combination of these medications may also be given for effective cure.
  • Non-invasive therapies such as nerve stimulation, electric artificial limb and mirror therapy, alternative therapies such as acupuncture, biofeedback, massage and relaxation therapies are also used to relieve the phantom pain.
  • Minimal invasive therapies such as pain killer injections as well as spinal cord stimulation by electric currents are used to relieve the pain.
  • If all these treatments fail to work, the last resort is surgery. One of the surgical options is brain stimulation, in which currents are directly delivered to the brain and positioned correctly by an MRI scan. If pain occurs due to nerve irritation in the stump, a surgery in which the nerves are cut is sometimes advised but then there is a risk of the pain aggravating.

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