Phantom limbs

Can you feel something that’s no longer there?

This image is from a collaborative project that used digital manipulation to help patients visualise what their phantom limb felt like to them.


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.






Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘How We Look’ in June 2008 and reviewed and updated in November 2014.

Psychology, Physiology, Neuroscience, Health, infection and disease
How We Look
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development