A review of the management of phantom limb pain: challenges and solutions

J Pain Res. 2017 Aug 7;10:1861-1870. doi: 10.2147/JPR.S124664. eCollection 2017.


Background: Phantom limb pain (PLP) occurs in 50% and 80% of amputees. Although it is often classified as a neuropathic pain, few of the large-scale trials of treatments for neuropathic pain included sufficient numbers of PLP sufferers to have confidence that they are effective in this condition. Many therapies have been administered to amputees with PLP over the years; however, as of yet, there appears to be no first-line treatment.

Objectives: To comprehensively review the literature on treatment modalities for PLP and to identify the challenges currently faced by clinicians dealing with this pain.

Method: MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, British Nursing Index, Cochrane and psycINFO databases were searched using "Phantom limb" initially as a MeSH term to identify treatments that had been tried. Then, a secondary search combining phantom limb with each treatment was performed to find papers specific to each therapy. Each paper was assessed for its research strength using the GRADE system.

Results: Thirty-eight therapies were identified. Overall, the quality of evidence was low. There was one high-quality study which used repetitive transcutaneous magnetic stimulation and found a statistical reduction in pain at day 15 but no difference at day 30. Significant results from single studies of moderate level quality were available for gabapentin, ketamine and morphine; however, there was a risk of bias in these papers. Mirror therapy and associated techniques were assessed through two systematic reviews, which conclude that there is insufficient evidence to support their use.

Conclusion: No decisions can be made for the first-line management of PLP, as the level of evidence is too low. Robust studies on homogeneous populations, an understanding of what amputees consider a meaningful reduction in PLP and agreement of whether pain intensity is the legitimate therapeutic target are urgently required.

Keywords: pain; phantom limb pain; review; treatment.

Publication types

  • Review