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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter July 1, 2012

Phantom phenomena – Their perceived qualities and consequences from the patient’s perspective

  • Berit Björkman EMAIL logo , Iréne Lund , Staffan Arnér and Lars-Christer Hydén


Background and aim

The curious phenomenon phantom limbs early became the object of research, and its underlying mechanisms have been discussed over the years. The complex nature of phantom phenomena makes interpretation of the results ambiguous, regarding both prevalence and the accompanying suffering. There is a lack of knowledge about how amputees experience the meaning and consequences of phantom phenomena. The present aim, therefore, was to investigate how individuals, in an interview situation, described the qualities of possible perceived phantom phenomena, and how their experience affected their lives one month after the amputation/mastectomy.


Twenty-eight women and men who had undergone a limb amputation or mastectomy were interviewed. The focused, narrative-oriented interviews were transcribed verbatim and the scripts were analysed with content analysis.


One month after the amputation the informants described and related their phantom pain and phantom sensations in sensory-discriminative, motivational-affective and cognitive-evaluative dimensions. The phantom sensations were experienced mainly as more agonizing than the phantom pain.

Despite both the high intensity of and the high annoyance at the phantom pain and phantom sensations, a majority felt that the phantom phenomena were not a hindrance in their attempts to recapture ordinary life. But when the hindrance was evaluated as high, the annoyance was evaluated as the highest possible for both phenomena or for the phantom sensations alone, never for phantom pain alone. The interviewees’ reported attitudes of hindrance were also described and estimated in the light of their sociocultural circumstances. Thus, other preceding and/or co-existent pain conditions as well as factors such as pre-operative information, the respondents’ views on pain treatment, and their knowledge and understanding of phantom phenomena were mentioned and related to the pain-producing situation.

Two-thirds of the interviewees had received post-surgical information and for some, the phenomena were well-known from earlier experience. A majority applied some version of the medical explanation model, irrespective of age or level of education. However neither information nor medical explanation, or both, sufficed for them to understand their own phantom phenomena. Thus, differences between the concepts explanation and understanding seemed significant for the annoyance related to the phantom phenomena.

Regarding background data

(i) the majority of the interviewees had had pre-amputation pain problems; (ii) the breast-cancer phantoms differed in several ways; (iii) there were some age and gender differences in the descriptions of hindrance.

Conclusions and implications

These findings highlight the importance of observing the individual approach to the phenomena as a process of evaluation and selection. In addition, experience and understanding of the phantoms also have sociocultural aspects. There follows the need for individualized communication and information from the clinician, and for incorporating a socioscientific and meaning-centred approach in future studies. The present insights could also be of value in other iatrogenic pain conditions.

DOI of refers to article: 10.1016/j.sjpain.2012.05.074.

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  1. Conflict of interest

    Conflict of interest statement: No financial or other conflicts of interest are related to this research or the manuscript.


The authors are indebted to the interviewees who kindly participated in the study and to the following coordinators who recruited them: Li Bjelkebo, RN; Helen Lernedal RN; Björn-Ove Ljung MD Associate Professor of Surgery; Sue Mellgrim RN and Anne Skoog, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon.

We also thank Zewar Al-Dabbagh, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon, Department of Orthopaedics, Karolinska University Hospital, Solna and Kerstin Sandelin, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Surgery, Department of Surgery, Karolinska University Hospital, Solna for their valuable comments.


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Received: 2011-07-22
Revised: 2012-02-03
Accepted: 2012-02-29
Published Online: 2012-07-01
Published in Print: 2012-07-01

© 2012 Scandinavian Association for the Study of Pain

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