It’s There, But It’s Not: Phantom Pain

In the past, I’ve written a few things about the human body and how it never ceases to amaze me. Here is one of the most interesting things about it that I have always wanted to discuss.

I remember a friend of mine who came home from Iraq in the early 2000s with a missing left arm. He was no soldier; just a humanitarian worker turned collateral damage. Apparently, an improvised explosive device blew his arm away while he was trying to help clear the surrounding area. This isn’t about his story of recovery, however. To tell you the truth, he’s gotten over the event.

I want to focus one of the oddest things I’ve ever had to think about: phantom limbs. See, when my friend Henry was recovering, I recall he would often complain about feeling as if his arm was still there, but paralyzed. He would compare it to feeling as though he had taken a ring off a finger, but could still feel the ring there. Sometimes, he would complain that his arm actually hurt as though it was exposed to an ice bath.

Phantom limbs aren’t exactly rare among the handicapped/handicapable fraction of the population. In fact, most of the people who read this will probably be familiar with the concept. Even so, the phenomenon has been the topic of much intrigue in both medical and psychological fields of study.

We got our explanation for what was happening when we took Henry to the doctor. According to him, the sensation is caused by the sudden loss of sensory input in the somatosensory complex; in a way easier to understand, this is the part of the brain that is responsible for the sense of touch. As a result of this lack of input, the now unused region of the brain is reorganized to accept input from other parts of the body that shared the same pathways in the nervous system. What this meant was that when a certain part of the body was touched – in Henry’s case, the cheek – the person would feel as though the area touched was actually the missing arm.

Interestingly enough, it is possible to get an idea of what phantom sensations feel like. For example, I once (embarrasibgly enough) had a heat rash in my right armpit. Itchy armpits meant I was scratching a lot, and I recall a most peculiar experience: as I scratched, I began to notice some right arm pain. There was an aching sensation even if nothing was actually wrong with my body; my brain was projecting a feeling that wasn’t there, simply because my armpits and the part of my arm that felt the pain shared the same pathways.

The point I’m trying to emphasize is this sense of wonder I get whenever I discuss anything about the human body. I mean, sure, phantom pain might often be interpreted as a flaw in the way our brains are programmed, but if you think hard on the matter, you can see it as an attempt by the brain to remedy damage dealt to it. Prior to the development of phantom pain, the neurons that are involved in the phenomenon had no purpose; they were cut from all sensory input from the arm. In a sense, each of the individual cells tries to find a new purpose through the reorganization that leads to phantom pain. It is an attempt by brain cells that lost their purpose to find a new meaning for their existence.

Think about it: if on a cellular level, our body is hardwired to find a purpose in its existence, what more if we think about the human organism as a whole?