Dealing with Limb Loss
The amputation of a limb is a life-changing experience. It's a tremendous physical loss and, in many cases, emotionally devastating. Everyone deals with these feelings in different ways. Allow yourself to grieve and to feel your loss. Talk about how you feel with a caring friend or a mental health professional. It may help you to learn about the stages of the grieving process. Ultimately, you will reach a stage of acceptance. How long this may take varies from person to person but one thing is certain: when you are able to accept your new body image you'll be able to lead a happier life.
As you move through your recovery, it's important to remember that your family and friends will also struggle with grief and acceptance. This is entirely normal and to be expected. For everyone involved, a key to getting back into life after amputation is to put things in perspective and deal with one moment at a time. Try to enjoy every little success and accomplishment, and look away from any percieved obstacles.
Pain and Phantom Sensation
One of the challenges of early care can be dealing with phantom limb sensation or pain. Phantom limb sensation is the feeling that the amputated limb is still present; most amputees experience this to some degree. Five to ten percent of amputees experience phantom pain that is significant enough to seek medical care. Phantom limb pain may develop immediately after injury or may develop weeks, months or even years later. It appears to be more common in people who lose a limb at an older age.
As the name implies, phantom pain has mysterious origins and is not well understood by scientists. One prevalent theory centers on the concept of brain reorganization. This theory looks at how the brain loses input from certain nerves following amputation. Later, the neurons are reactivated and respond to input from the remaining nerves. Pressure on the residual limb might trigger a response in the part of the brain that previously responded to nerves in the missing limb, triggering sensations that are felt as if they were in the missing limb. Researchers have also shown that if those parts of the brain are stimulated with electrodes, the amputee feels sensation in their missing limb.
Phantom pain varies and may feel like cramping, aching, burning or a shock-like sensation. Stress, anxiety, fear or fatigue will usually increase the person’s discomfort. There are many different types of therapies that attempt to relieve this pain, including acupuncture, biofeedback, chiropractic, and complicated surgical procedures. It is a good idea for people to keep a log of when the pain occurs and try to identify and eliminate any triggers they might discover. People should not hesitate to talk to their prosthetist or physician about phantom pain and how best to treat it.
Here are some techniques our patients have used to reduce or alleviate phantom pain:
- Wrapping the residual limb in a warm, soft towel
- Wrapping the residual limb with a heating pad
- Wrapping the residual limb in a cold pack or applying a cooling cream or gel
- Mentally exercising the missing limb in the area where the pain occurs
- Mentally relaxing the missing limb and the residual limb
- Tightening the muscles in the residual limb and slowly releasing them
- Applying an elastic/Ace bandage or shrinker
For people with a prosthesis, putting it on and taking a short walk
- Taking off the prosthesis if pain is experienced while wearing it
- Changing position, moving around or standing up
Soaking in a warm bath or using the shower to massage the residual limb. Massaging the residual limb with both hands
- Trying natural supplements including juniper berry, grape seed extract, vitamin E, vitamin A, B12, potassium, calcium and magnesium
Unfortunately, research indicates that some people who experienced pain in a limb before amputation also appear to be at greater risk of developing phantom pain after its removal.
On a positive note, many people find that phantom pain and sensations are reduced once they are fit with a prosthesis and begin wearing it regularly.
Maintaining Good Health
High quality prosthetic care is essential to your recovery. Equally important are the choices you make each day to be healthy.
Physical therapy is a very important piece of your recovery and one that you many find easy to ignore. There is no question that it is hard work, but it is well worth the effort. Therapy loosens the residual limb and increases muscle tone and coordination. It helps keep your joints flexible, teaches you how to use your prosthesis properly and how to carry out daily activities.
It is very important that your residual limb stay healthy, which means practicing good hygiene. Ask your prosthetist or physical therapist about the best ways to take care of your limb so that it remains in good physical condition. Additionally, if your socket or any of your components are uncomfortable, talk with your prosthetist right away. It may be a sign that something is not fitting properly which may negatively impact your limb.
Diet and Lifestyle
A healthy diet and lifestyle is important for everyone, but especially for an amputee. Eating fresh, nutritious food and exercising regularly will help control medical conditions such as diabetes, which if ignored, may cause further complications down the road. Losing excess weight or maintaining a healthy weight will help increase your strength, give you more stability and prevent problems with your prosthesis. Ultimately, those who are dedicated to a healthy lifestyle will see better results.
Our patients tell us that shared experiences are some of the most beneficial forms of healing and recovery. Learning that you are not alone in your particular situation provides a great sense of comfort. It allows you to learn from others with like conditions how to deal with the challenges of daily living - what works and what doesn’t.
Ask your prosthetist if he or she can put you in touch with other prosthetic users with similar amputation levels. The support and encouragement of these advocates can help keep you motivated and on the road to a successful recovery. Additionally, there are numerous support groups and organizations available to see you through.