Janelle Durham, 2004

What is phantom pain? What does it feel like? How long will it last?

Phantom pain is the term used to describe sensations felt by amputees, which may include tingling, itching, twisting, cramping, pins-and-needles, stabbing pains, pressure, a sense of fullness (as if the limb was still there, but slightly swollen), and so on. The ghost-limb sensations can be similar to what a non-amputee feels when his/her foot has “fallen asleep” to the point of being numb, then sensation comes back painfully. The majority of amputees experience these sensations to some degree.

Often the feeling is very localized. An amputee may describe the sensation as being in a specific location, such as ‘on the bottom of the big toe’ or ‘on the right side of the shin, right below the knee, going down in a straight line.’ If they were to point at where the sensation was felt, the phantom limb may be shorter in comparison to where the real limb would be. Amputees may feel as though they can ‘wiggle their toes’ or ‘count on their fingers.’

The phantom sensations are intermittent (they come and go, unpredictably.) New amputees tend to have frequent and intense sensations several times every day, often continuously for a few hours at a time. As the years pass after an amputation, the sensations will generally become less frequent, and less intense, and bouts of pain last for a shorter amount of time. However, despite medical literature that says “both the phantom sensations and pain gradually resolve with time,” many amputees report that the phantom pain never completely disappears.

I will use my own experience to illustrate some of the points of this article: My right leg was amputated above the knee in 1982 because of bone cancer (I was a teenager). I still have phantom sensation. Most days, I have no sensations (except anytime I talk about it, or write about it, my leg tingles all over, in a not-quite painful way.) I have mild pain for a few minutes a week at random intervals. About once every three or four months, I have pain that is bad enough to disrupt my sleep, or make it hard for me to focus on a task.