50 years ago, phantom pain was blamed on misfiring nerves 

Excerpt from the May 11, 1974 issue of Science News 

A man wears a prosthetic leg while riding a bicycle

A man wears a prosthetic leg that senses foot pressure and knee angle using electrical stimulation. The stimulation also reduced his phantom pain, scientists reported in 2019.


Physiology of the phantom limbScience News, May 11, 1974 

Nearly everybody who has had a leg or arm amputated sometimes experiences the sensation or feeling that they still have their missing limbs. Some of them experience pain in their “phantom limbs.” … One assumes that [cut nerves] frequently fire off impulses to the central nervous system and … create the sensation of a limb still being present…. [Scientists] have now confirmed that these events occur, at least in experimental animals.


The cause of phantom limb pain is more complicated than just mis­firing nerves. Post-amputation changes in the spinal cord and brain may also contribute, mounting evidence suggests. Therapies such as pain relievers and using visual feedback from mirrors to trick the brain can offer some relief (SN: 03/02/14). But researchers are still searching for more effective treatments. In 2019, scientists reported that electrically stimulating nerves near amputation sites not only helped two men detect pressure and motion through a prosthetic leg, but also reduced their phantom pain (SN: 09/09/19).

Helen Bradshaw is a spring 2024 science writing intern at Science News. She graduated from Northwestern University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a focus on environmental policy and culture.

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