The menacing phantom: What pulls the trigger?


Experimental Neuropsychology Research Unit, School of Psychology and Psychiatry, Monash University, Wellington Road, Clayton, VIC 3800, Australia. Tel.: +61 3 9905 3958; fax: +61 3 9905 3948


Phantom phenomena are frequent following amputation, but how this often painful experience is modified or triggered by spontaneous events or sensations often puzzles amputees and clinicians alike. We explored triggers of phantom phenomena in a heterogeneous sample of 264 upper and lower limb adult amputees with phantom sensations. Participants completed a structured questionnaire to determine the prevalence and nature of the triggers of phantom phenomena. The four categories of triggers identified include: (a) a quarter of participants experiencing psychological, emotional or autonomic triggers; (b) half experiencing behavioral triggers, “forgetting” the limb's absence and attempting to use the phantom; (c) one-fifth experiencing weather-induced triggers; and (d) one-third experiencing sensations referred from parts of the body. Upper limb amputees; and were more likely to experience weather-induced phantom phenomena than lower limb amputees; and upper and lower limb amputees were equally likely to experience referred sensations from the genitals, contradicting the homuncular remapping hypothesis. Traumatic amputees were more likely to report emotional triggers. Further, while those with emotional triggers exhibited poorer acceptance of the limitations of amputation, they were more likely to employ adaptive coping mechanisms. Finally, habitual “forgetting” behaviors were most common soon after amputation, whereas other more adaptive schemata (e.g., self-defense) were equally likely to be performed at any time following amputation. Various likely inter-related mechanisms are discussed in relation to phantom triggers. Ultimately, optimizing stump and neuroma management, as well as restoring function of central networks for pain, limb movement, and amputation-related memories, should help manage spontaneously triggered phantom phenomena.