Can you feel something that’s no longer there?
Alexa Wright, ‘After Image’ (1997)
Phantom limbs are experienced when people feel that an amputated limb is still connected to their body. Often this is experienced as a painful sensation – but it has nothing to do with tissue damage. In the past surgery was sometimes used to try to eliminate the pain, but this rarely helped – and sometimes left a patient with two phantoms.
In fact, the problem seems to lie in brain regions that interpret sensory information from the body’s surface. After amputation, these reorganise; the degree of reorganisation correlates well with the experience of pain. Remarkably, tricking the brain into thinking that the limb is present, through use of mirrors or virtual reality, seems to help reduce pain.