Origins of Phantom Limb Pain


Phantom limb pain (PLP) is a chronic neuropathic pain occurring in 45–85% of patients who undergo major amputations of the upper and lower extremities. Chronic pain is physically and mentally debilitating, affecting an individual’s potential for self-care and the performance of daily living activities essential for personal and economic independence. In addition, chronic pain may lead to depression and feelings of hopelessness. A National Center for Biotechnology Information study found that in the USA alone, the annual cost of dealing with neuropathic pain is more than $600 billion, with an estimated 20 million people in the USA suffering this condition. PLP manifest predominantly during two time frames post-amputation: during days to a month and again at around 1 year. In most patients, the frequency and intensity of the chronic neuropathic pain diminish over time, but severe pain persists in about 5–10% of patients. The development and maintenance of neuropathic pain is attributed to extremity amputations causing changes in peripheral axon properties and neuronal circuitry in both the peripheral and central nervous systems: peripheral axons, dorsal root ganglia, the spinal cord, and the cortex. However, it is not clear how the changes in neuronal properties in these different locations affect neuropathic pain. Is pain initiated by one set of post-amputation changes while the pain is maintained by another set of changes? If one set of amputation-induced changes, such as those of peripheral axons, are reverted to normal, is the chronic pain reduced or eliminated, while reversing another set of neuronal changes and neuronal circuits to normal do not reduce or eliminate the pain? Or, must all the amputation-induced changes be reverted to normal for pain to be eliminated? While this review examines the mechanisms underlying the induction or maintenance of PLP, it is beyond its scope to examine the mechanisms that may permanently reduce or eliminate neuropathic pain. This paper is the first of two reviews in this journal and deals with the causes of chronic PLP development and maintenance, while the second review examines potential mechanisms that may be responsible for promoting the capacity to coping with PLP by reducing or eliminating it.

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Correspondence to Damien P. Kuffler.

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Kuffler, D.P. Origins of Phantom Limb Pain. Mol Neurobiol 55, 60–69 (2018).

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  • Spinal cord injury
  • Neuropathic pain
  • Brain stimulation
  • Deep brain stimulation (DBS)
  • Motor cortex stimulation (MCS)
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)
  • Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)
  • Cranial electrotherapy stimulation (CES)