- At least 90 percent of amputees have had a phantom limb: they perceive that a missing body part is still present and attached to their body. Such phantoms are often very painful and may persist for years.
- Recent studies suggest that phantom limbs are not the product of erroneous neural signals emanating from an amputee’s stump. Rather they are now thought to arise largely from activity in neural networks in the brain that build a mental image of the body.
- Researchers are trying to treat phantom limb syndrome using mirrors and virtual reality, both of which create illusions that can help patients gain better control over their ghostly appendages and may help decrease phantom pain.
One morning in my fourth year of medical school, a vascular surgeon at the University Hospital in São Paulo, Brazil, invited me to visit the orthopedics inpatient ward. “Today we will talk to a ghost,” the doctor said. “Do not get frightened. Try to stay calm. The patient has not accepted what has happened yet, and he is very shaken.”
A boy around 12 years old with hazy blue eyes and blond curly hair sat before me. Drops of sweat soaked his face, contorted in an expression of horror. The child’s body, which I now watched closely, writhed from pain of uncertain origin. “It really hurts, doctor; it burns. It seems as if something is crushing my leg,” he said. I felt a lump in my throat, slowly strangling me. “Where does it hurt?” I asked. He replied: “In my left foot, my calf, the whole leg, everywhere below my knee!”