How Common Are Chronic Residual Limb Pain, Phantom Pain, and Back Pain More Than 20 Years After Lower Limb Amputation for Malignant Tumors?

Clin Orthop Relat Res. 2021 Sep 1;479(9):2036-2044. doi: 10.1097/CORR.0000000000001725.


Background: After major lower limb amputation, persistent pain is common, with up to 85% of patients reporting recurring phantom or residual-limb pain. Although pain management is an important factor of quality of life in patients with lower limb amputations, there are few long-term data regarding the frequency of persistent pain and how it impacts prosthesis use.

Questions/purposes: (1) How prevalent are different types of pain at long-term follow-up after amputation for malignant tumors? (2) What association do different pain types have with daily prosthesis use?

Methods: Between 1961 and 1995, 124 major amputations for malignant tumors were performed at one center in Austria in patients (1) who spoke German and (2) whose surgical date resulted in the possibility of a minimum follow-up time of 20 years at the time of this survey; those patients were considered potentially eligible for this retrospective study. The indications for major amputation were to achieve local tumor control in limbs that the surgeon deemed unsalvageable without amputation. Of those 124 patients, 71% (88) had died, 9% (11) could not be reached, and 3% (4) declined to participate. Thus, 58% (21 of 36) of those living at the time of this study and who underwent lower limb amputation between 1961 and 1993 with a median (range) follow-up duration of 41 years (23 to 55) completed a standardized questionnaire, including an assessment of pain and daily prosthesis use during the year before the survey. Phantom pain, residual limb pain, and back pain were each further subclassified into pain frequency, intensity, and restrictions in activities of daily living (ADL) due to the specific pain form and rated on a 5- (pain frequency) and 10-point (pain intensity, restrictions in ADL) numerical rating scale. Before multivariate regression analysis, daily prosthesis use was correlated with pain parameters using Spearman correlation testing.

Results: Seventeen of 21 patients reported phantom limb and back pain, and 15 patients reported residual limb pain in the past year. Median (range) phantom pain intensity was 7 (1 to 10) points, median residual limb pain intensity was 4 (1 to 9) points, and median back pain intensity was 5 (1 to 10) points. After controlling for relevant confounding variables such as age at amputation, age at survey, and stump length, we found that less intense residual limb pain (defined on a 10-point scale with 1 representing no pain at all and 10 representing extremely strong pain [95% CI 0.3 to 1.0]; r = 0.8; p = 0.003) was associated with greater daily prosthesis use. Higher amputation levels showed a decreased daily prosthesis use compared with patients with lower amputation levels (defined as transfemoral amputation versus knee disarticulation versus transtibial amputation [95% CI 0.3 to 5.1]; r = 0.5; p = 0.03).

Conclusion: Decades after surgery, many patients with lower limb amputations experience pain that restricts them in terms of ADLs and decreases their daily prosthesis use. This information supports the need for regular residual limb inspections and careful prosthesis fitting even at long-term follow-up, as effective prosthesis fitting is a modifiable cause of residual limb pain. Future studies evaluating long-term treatment effects of pain relief surgery and therapeutic alternatives to conservative pain treatments should be performed, as these approaches may help alleviate pain in patients with refractory postamputation pain.

Level of evidence: Level IV, therapeutic study.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Amputation, Surgical / methods*
  • Artificial Limbs*
  • Back Pain / etiology*
  • Chronic Pain / etiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lower Extremity / surgery*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / surgery*
  • Pain Measurement
  • Phantom Limb / etiology*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult