Limb amputation may lead to chronic painful sensations referred to the absent limb, ie phantom limb pain (PLP), which is likely subtended by maladaptive plasticity. The present study investigated whether transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a noninvasive technique of brain stimulation that can modulate neuroplasticity, can reduce PLP. In 2 double-blind, sham-controlled experiments in subjects with unilateral lower or upper limb amputation, we measured the effects of a single session of tDCS (2 mA, 15 min) of the primary motor cortex (M1) and of the posterior parietal cortex (PPC) on PLP, stump pain, nonpainful phantom limb sensations and telescoping. Anodal tDCS of M1 induced a selective short-lasting decrease of PLP, whereas cathodal tDCS of PPC induced a selective short-lasting decrease of nonpainful phantom sensations; stump pain and telescoping were not affected by parietal or by motor tDCS. These findings demonstrate that painful and nonpainful phantom limb sensations are dissociable phenomena. PLP is associated primarily with cortical excitability shifts in the sensorimotor network; increasing excitability in this system by anodal tDCS has an antalgic effect on PLP. Conversely, nonpainful phantom sensations are associated to a hyperexcitation of PPC that can be normalized by cathodal tDCS. This evidence highlights the relationship between the level of excitability of different cortical areas, which underpins maladaptive plasticity following limb amputation and the phenomenology of phantom limb, and it opens up new opportunities for the use of tDCS in the treatment of PLP.
Copyright © 2013 International Association for the Study of Pain. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.