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13 Jul 2021

Among the most well researched, controversial and yet little understood area in medicine is the ‘phantom phenomenon’ which occurs when a part of body like an arm or leg has to be amputated.

In 90% of such cases, the patient soon begins to feel a non-existent ‘phantom’ limb where none exists any longer. Not only that, the person also feels sensations like tingling, itching and pain. So vivid is this experience that amputees routinely and unconsciously often reach out with a functional limb to soothe, scratch or rub a part of them which is not there.

Almost all parts of our anatomy are subject to phantom phenomenon to varying degrees. Physicians have reported cases wherein people who have lost an inner ear believe, they can still hear sounds from it. About 25% of women who have undergone mastectomies say they can feel sensations from the excised breast. And dentists frequently record cases where the pain in an infected tooth refuses to go away even after complete dental extraction.

The most remarkable phantom phenomenon is however the phantom eye syndrome. This is when one or both eyes are totally removed in a process called enucleation or evisceration. About 1/3rd of patients report visual hallucinations from the removed eye. Most of these phantasms consist of basic perceptions consisting of shapes and colors or cartoon like images.

Similarly phantom arm or limb is not always perceived as exact replicas of the original either. Sometimes they are shorter or are grotesque or have fingers and joints missing. Other times they seem to be frozen in one position for such a long time as t cause persistent pain which appears intractable to treatment. Yet, curiously, the one thing that does seem to cure several types of such pain is the use of prosthesis.

There are of course tentative neurological explanations but some believe that phantom limbs may be a form of internal metaphoric mourning- the mind’s way of making up for what has gone.  For example, it’s been noted that when surgeons perform repeated amputations, shortening stump incrementally in an attempt to rid the sufferer of delusion, the phantom returns with a vengeance, reasserting itself with every loss. If an arm could survive amputation, why should an entire person not live on after death?

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Aswathi G

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