Several years ago, Peggy Chenoweth began having excruciating cramping in her ankle. It felt severely sprained and as if her toe were twisting to the point where it was being ripped off her foot.
"The pain is right here," she told an orthopedic surgeon, "in my ankle and foot." But the 41-year-old Gainesville, Va., resident no longer had that ankle and foot. Her leg had been amputated below the knee after a large piece of computer equipment fell off a cart, crushed her foot and caused nerve damage. Further, she insisted that since the amputation, she could feel her missing toes move.
Chenoweth's surgeon knew exactly what was going on: phantom pain.
Lynn Webster, an anesthesiologist and past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, explains the phenomenon: "With 'phantom pain,' nerves that transmitted information from the brain to the now-missing body part continue to send impulses, which relay the message of pain."
It feels as if the removed part is still there and hurting, but pain is actually in the brain. The sensation ranges from annoying itching to red-hot burning.
Physicians wrote about phantom pain as early as the 1860s, but U.S. research on this condition has increased recently, spurred by the surge of amputees returning from warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan and by increasing rates of diabetes. (Since 2003, nearly 1,650 service members have lost limbs, according to the Congressional Research Service. In 2010, about 73,000 amputations were performed on diabetics in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)