Phantom limbs

  • First described by a French doctor, Ambroise Pare, in the 16th century. Term coined by Wier Mitchell in 1866.
  • Phantom limb = persistent sensation of an appendage after its removal. Phantom pain = pain in the phantom limb.
  • Typical onset - within weeks or even days following amputation. Symptoms can persist for years. Incidence rate perhaps up to 80% of all amputees (Melzack, 1992).
  • Reports: appendage feels real, swinging arms during walking, sensation of watch or ring,
  • Pain: Crushing, burning, itching or shooting sensations, twisting of a foot, fingernails through the palm in a tight fist.

Earlier explanations

  • Mental psychosis resulting from the traumatic loss of a limb.
  • Sensations created by severed sensory neurons - a nodule (neuroma) forming near the end of the stump. Surgical removal of neuroma sometimes bring temporary relief, but the phantom limb always return.


  • Stimulation of the stump, electrical stimulation, massage, ultrasound applied at the stump, electric stimulation of the brain, pain-killers, LSD, hypnosis, psychotherapy and prefrontal lobotomies. Usually no permanent relief.