Commonly referred to as Phantom Pain, the phenomenon is often seen as a psychological distortion of a medical reality – never by the patient, but by the attending professionals.
Often used to describe pain experienced by a patient when there is no body part present where they say it hurts does not make the pain less real. It is phantom only to the medical practitioner who fails to understand that the body part does not need to be physically attached for the brain to feel REAL pain coming from where the nervous system has learned to trust that it is.
Flashback to a movie about WWI or WWII made during the 1950s. The soldier who has had his leg amputated after having it demolished by a land mine is lying in a hospital bed surrounded by somber looking medical professionals with inquiring faces. He is screaming that his leg hurts so badly that he MUST have medicine for it.
The camera zooms in on the bandaged stump where his leg once was. With weathered concern, the eldest of the doctors touches him gently on the arm and says, “Joe, your leg is not there anymore. We had to take it off. It can’t hurt you anymore. You will be OK.”
That vignette would be a fine example of both poor screen writing and even poorer medical practice. His leg really hurts. That it is not physically there is not the issue. The issue that needs immediate attention is NOT that he has to come to grips with having ‘lost’ a limb, but that he is in pain!
The experience of pain is always ‘real’ to the person who feels it. Now understood to emanate from the learned, but somehow physically severed, nerve connections, severe pains suffered by both civilian accident victims and war-related amputees now is treated with medicines to bring relief from the suffering of pain, just as it would be if the hurting body part were still in place but severely injured.
The process that led to the change in this thinking parallels the growing understanding of the deeply complex inseparability of the functions of human existence formerly described as two mutually exclusive entities – Mind and Body.
Having learned to better understand this phenomenon, medical professionals (doctors and nurses) have been retrained to take pain complaints seriously. Routinely, patients are asked to rate their pain on a scale of 1 – 10. #1 being no pain, and #10 being the most unbearable pain every experienced. In hospital, patients are asked this many times each day. Is not a healing experience or factor and, neglected, can actually slow or fully disrupt the recovery process.
Pain is real and most usually must be treated with real medicine. The reluctance of doctors to use pain medicines in the past fearing overuse or addiction, turned out, on clinical examination, to be largely unwarranted and was actually more of a statement of the provider’s discomfort with the medicine than it was of any real risk to the patient.
Phantom pain is, in fact a misnomer. Pain is always real.
The ‘Phantom’ element is a misguided designation flaunting a classic but historically ubiquitous belief that it something is not physically present, it cannot really hurt. This belief also predates our more modern and thorough understanding that just because a body part is gone, it can take quite a while for the central nervous system to realize, accept and adjust to the loss. In the mean time, it can and does REALLY hurt!
In any responsible medical environment where pain can be managed, to not do so is tantamount to neglect and should not be permitted or tolerated… Phantom – Schmantom… Pain is Pain.