Understanding Referred Pain and Phantom Pain
Chronic pain affects nearly 100 million Americans, says recent estimates by pain experts. Sometimes the cause of chronic pain is clear and sometimes it is not.
For instance, if pain is felt as a result of a chronic condition, such as arthritis, which produces painful inflammation in the joints, then the cause is clear. On the other hand, if the pain is felt in one part of the body, but that body part checks out okay the cause can be less understood. This can happen in particular in cases when the pain stems from damage to a peripheral or spinal nerve.
This type of nerve pain, called neuropathic pain, can lead a patient to perceive pain in one part of the body with the actual origin of the pain elsewhere.
Knowing more about two types of neuropathic pain can be useful to help you or someone you care for get the appropriate treatment.
When you feel pain in one part of your body when in reality another part of the body, far removed from the pain, is the real source of trouble, this is called referred pain.
A common example is when a patient experiences pain in their hip and thigh region, but the cause of the pain is a condition in the lower back such as a herniated disc. What happens is that the nerves to these areas of the body overlap in the central nervous system--which makes it possible for the brain to interpret pain in one area of the body with the actual cause for the pain being in another part.
The best treatment for referred pain is to determine the underlying cause and then address it. If you are experiencing chronic pain with no obvious cause, you may want to suggest to your doctor the possibility of referred pain and ask for tests to look for the source elsewhere in your body.
Phantom pain is a type of neuropathic pain that feels like it's coming from a body part that's no longer there.
For example, after an amputation, patients will often complain of phantom pain from the missing limb/body part. Since areas of the spinal cord and brain lose input from the missing limb, they often adjust to this detachment in unpredictable ways, says staff at the Mayo Clinic. The result can mimic tangled wires and trigger the body's most basic message that something is not right: pain.
Scientists previously believed that brain cells affected by amputation simply died off after the removal of the body part. They attributed pain sensations at the site of the amputation to irritation of nerves located near the limb stump. Now, using imaging techniques such as positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), scientists can actually see increased activity in the brain's cortex when an individual feels phantom pain.
While phantom pain occurs most often in people who've had an arm or leg removed, the pain may also occur after surgeries to remove other body parts, such as the breast, penis, eye or tongue.
3 Strategies for Pain Management
Although you may not have control over whether you have referred pain or phantom pain, you can take steps to help manage your pain and reduce your discomfort. Try the following.
Stay physically active. Physical activity releases endorphins, which are known as the "feel-good" hormones. The release of these hormones can help to reduce your pain. Try to get at least 30 minutes of mild exercise three to five times a week to benefit from this natural pain-reliever.
Do activities that you enjoy. Paint, read, garden, sing--do something that gives you pleasure. This can help take your mind off of the pain and also help release muscular and emotional tension.
Connect with people. Call up a friend, take a class about something you've been longing to learn, or join a volunteer group. Research has shown that people with more social support have better-functioning immune systems--which can help reduce your pain. Also, being involved with others can take your mind off of the pain.
Chronic Pain Information Page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/chronic_pain/chronic_pain.htm. Accessed Dec. 7, 2009.
Fast facts on amputation/phantom limb pain. American Pain Foundation. http://www.painfoundation.org/learn/library/pain-conditions/amputation/fast-facts-amputation.html. Accessed Dec. 9, 2009.
Mayo Clinic Staff. Phantom Pain. MayoClinic.com. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/phantom-pain/DS00444/DSECTION=causes. Accessed Dec. 9, 2009.
Rhodes, M. and Poinier, A.C Phantom Limb Pain and Chronic Pain. Healthwise.com. http://www.healthkey.com/a-z/hw-ty6877,0,4391166.healthwisestory. Accessed Dec. 7, 2009.
Sign Up for Free Newsletters
Ask Your Doctor the RIGHT Questions!
the most from your doctor visit.
Emailed right to you!
The Ask Your Doctor email series
may contain sponsored content.
18+, US residents only please.
Explore Original Articles About...
The material on the QualityHealth Web site is for informational purposes only, and is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment provided by a physician or other qualified health provider. See additional information.