Updated 28 October 2019

Phantom limbs

Sometimes, after an arm or leg has been amputated, the person continues to feel pain or other sensations as though the amputated limb were still there.

Sometimes, after an arm or leg has been amputated, the person continues to feel pain or other sensations as though the amputated limb were still there. This is known as “phantom limb syndrome”.

The image here is a manipulated digital photograph of an amputee who lost her hand, but nonetheless still feels its "ghost".

This portrait is one of the After Image series, a collaboration among British visual artist Alexa Wright, two neuroscientists and eight people with amputated limbs, which aims to describe the experiences of people with this strange and often very painful condition.

The above work was sourced from the Wellcome Collection’s Medicine Now exhibition. Click to enlarge.

"JN", the 35-year-old woman depicted here, tells the story of her phantom hand:

"I was involved in a road accident in which my hand was found disconnected at the site of the accident. An attempt was made to reconnect it, but the lower arm was later lost through secondary infection. The amputation was only about a week and a half after the accident, but I had perhaps four operations in the six months after that to get the stump right.

"I have had the phantom ever since, although it's not there all the time. When the pain increases it seems to be larger; it is definitely heavier than a normal limb. I can open and close my hand, and this helps to ease the pain. I seem to be able to move it like a normal limb, but the joints are very large, and it's much stiffer. I am not aware of the wrist at all, not even aware that there is a wrist, but I can clench and move the fingers individually.

"At the time of the accident I was aware that my engagement ring cut into my finger, and that is still there. At first I used to get quite uptight that I must be crazy because I was imagining a hand there; but it is so definite that nobody can convince me that it is just in my mind. Especially when it is itching it's so real that I feel as though I can actually scratch it. I can pin-point where it's itching, and yet I am aware that it is not there.

"When I start trying to move the limb the phantom doesn’t go with the part that I have got left. Most of the time the phantom just feels flat; I have to think about it to make it a solid form. I wasn’t born like this and obviously I do miss my arm, yet sometimes the phantom pain makes me feel whole again."

(- Olivia Rose-Innes, Health24, updated September 2010)

Read more:
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