Topical Pain Medications used for Phantom Limb Pain

What is Phantom Limb Syndrome?

Phantom limb syndrome is the sensation a person feels when an amputated or missing limb feels as though it is still attached to the body. Therefore, in this syndrome, the affected person feels pain in their missing limb. Prevalence of phantom limb pain during the week preceding assessment was 42.6 percent (60 of 14Prescription pain cream for Phantom Limb Pain1). Prevalence of residual limb pain was 43.3 percent (61 of 141). More than one third of these had some pain constantly or most days.

Recent studies have shown that almost 60 to 80 percent of the people, who go through an amputation, experience phantom limb syndrome. Phantom sensations are not just attributed to amputated limbs. They are known to occur after the removal of several body parts such as breasts, teeth, and eyes.

Most of the people feel as if the missing or amputated limb is shorter and in a painful position. Phantom pain is made worse by emotional aggravating factors such as stress, anxiety, and environmental factors like weather changes. This type of pain is intermittent and usually fades away with time. However, in some cases it is known to persist for several years.

Characteristics of Phantom Limb Syndrome

There are various features of phantom limb syndrome such as:

  • It starts within the first few days after amputation
  • It is intermittent, with relapses and remissions.
  • It most commonly affects that part of the limb which is distal (that is further away from the body) such as the foot or the hand.
  • The pain may be described as shooting, burning, slicing, throbbing pain.
  • The phantom body part sometimes feels as if it is placed in an uncomfortable position.
  • Emotional or environmental factors may trigger it.

Management of Phantom Limb Pain

There are various ways to manage the pain of phantom limb syndrome. Both medical and non-medical treatments are available. In addition to treatment, self-care is a very important and contributing part in managing phantom limb pain.

Since emotional factors such as stress and anxiety act as triggers, so it is best for such patients to keep calm and not to over exert themselves. Additionally, ibuprofen and aspirin are two medications known to help manage phantom limb pain.

Topical Agents for Managing Phantom Limb Pain

Topical medications, as the name implies, are applied topically over the skin. Recently the trend has shifted to topical medications due to their various benefits and almost negligible side effects, when compared to oral medications. Topical medications, when applied locally, target the parts they are applied to, get absorbed in the skin, and thus, are quite effective in treating pain.


  • Topical anesthetics: Topical medications are divided into two groups. One of them is the topical anesthetics, which when applied over the skin, are known to numb that very part. They act by removing the sensation and numbing that part to which they have been applied.


  • Topical analgesics: Topical analgesics act by way of absorption. They are directly absorbed into the skin, and therefore, they have minimal systemic effects. This is precisely why topical agents are so good at relieving pain without causing any side effects. As opposed to their counter parts, topical analgesics act directly on the central nervous system and inhibit inflammation as well as pain.


  • Salicyclates: These include agents such as aspirin, which are known for their pain relieving characteristics. They are mostly available in the form of creams, and are quite effective for use on the distal parts such as hands and feet. These two specific areas are often affected in phantom limb syndrome.


  • Counter irritants: These drugs also remove pain by creating sensations to distract you from pain. Thus, there are a variety of effective options when it comes to treating phantom limb pain with topical medications.


Desmond, D.M. and Maclachlan, M. (2010). Prevalence and characteristics of phantom limb pain and residual limb pain in the long term after upper limb amputation. Int J Rehab Res, 33(3), 279 – 282. Retrieved from:

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