New Treatment May Relieve Phantom Limb Pain in Amputees

A newly discovered freezing technique may prove to reduce phantom limb pain experienced by many amputees.

Recent statistics show that approximately 4.5% of the global population suffers from neuropathic pain, a state of chronic pain in which the nerve fibers are damaged and can send incorrect signals to other pain centers. Phantom limb is a particularly troubling form of neuropathic pain that emanates from the site of a severed limb, causing the sufferer to feel discomfort in a body part that does not exist. Researchers say that the problem stems from inaccurate signaling among the remaining nerve endings or overactivity of surrounding nerves.

After performing trials on several patients, researchers suggest that targeted freezing may improve currently inadequate phantom limb treatments.

Dr. J. David Prologo, an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine, points out that as of right now, “The rate and severity of phantom limb pain in patients today are equal to the rate and severity of patients from 50 years ago.”

The recent freezing therapy research, however, could prove to be the major breakthrough medical science has been searching for over the past half-century. Researchers were initially studying the effects of cryoablation (freezing) in treating premature ejaculation and found that the goal for both conditions is the same: stop nerve communication.

“It may not work for everyone,” Prologo said. Of the preliminary research, he concludes, “Although the overall average change in pain scores and quality of life improved and reached statistical significance, not every single patient got better. How to identify the patient who will respond is the focus of our ongoing research.”

Dustin Tyler, a biomedical engineer at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center, says that the effectiveness of cryoablation will depend on each particular case. For example, a patient whose pain stems from the brain’s futile search for lost sensory input will not likely benefit from the procedure, as the problem is in the brain rather than in the nerve endings themselves.

Even for patients who appear to be good candidates for cryoablation, long-term follow-up will be necessary to confirm the success of the method.

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