Phantom Limb Pain or PLP can be an irritating and debilitating condition for amputees, with conventional pain treatment often ineffective. Is there any evidence that Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR can help with this condition.
EMDR has proven to be a very effective treatment for reducing the symptoms of PLP, with several studies supporting it’s effectiveness. It appears that many of the pain sensations in PLP are created by the mind/brain and not real, and resolving any underlying trauma surrounding either accidents or the resulting amputation with EMDR can greatly reduce or eliminate the symptoms of PLP for a much better quality of life for sufferers.
Phantom Limb Pain in Brief
Very briefly, Phantom Limb Pain or PLP is something which can afflict amputees who have had one or more limbs removed. Even after the amputation, they can still feel sensations which make them feel as though the limb is still there, and sometimes painful sensations from the missing limb.
This can manifest in a number of different ways, including and sharp stabbing or shooting pain, numbness, tingling, or other sensations. Even though the limb is no longer there, the person still continues to feel sensations as though it is, and they can at times be quite painful and annoying.
This condition occurs to some extent for most amputees (80-100%), and can be a major problems. Standard pain treatment such as medication and acupuncture is largely ineffective and PLP is seldom due to actual nerve damage – see below for proof that the condition appears to be largely created by the mind/brain.
EMDR as an Effective Treatment For Phantom Limb Pain
Thankfully, EMDR has been shown to be a very effective treatment in resolving Phantom Limb Pain, since it appears that so often this pain is not due to real nerve and skin damage, but is simply a manifestation of stored pain sensations that have not been fully processed and resolved.
This can be from a severe accident itself which perhaps led to the amputation, or the actual amputation process itself if done when the person was still conscious.
Both experiences can obviously be very painful and traumatic for the person, and as the EMDR theoretical framework so often points out, any kind of unresolved trauma, along with the associated feelings, thoughts, and in this context bodily sensations, are often stored in the mind/brain if they were too overwhelming to process at the time the event happened.
This means that the amputee is often carrying around the pain sensations long after the accident and/or limb removal, simply because their mind/brain has not fully processed the experience of any accidents and/or amputations, and these unprocessed sensations continue to feed back into the person’s conscious awareness as though the limb was still there and the accident/amputation was still happening.
By processing these experiences and associated pain sensations to full resolution during EMDR, PLP sufferers have been shown in several studies to achieve a significant reduction or elimination of PLP symptoms in around 80% of cases. EMDR is a very effective treatment for Phantom Limb Pain.
See the video below by EMDR founder and expert the late Francine Shapiro for a quick summary on the research supporting this, as well links to the studies she cites on EMDR for PLP.
- See here for the Russell (2007) research paper on EMDR for PLP.
- See here for the Roos et al (2010) study on EMDR for PLP.
More on EMDR as a Treatment Method
For those interested in pursuing this further, here is a brief overview of how EMDR works.
- EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing and is a powerful and effective form of psychotherapy for many conditions including PLP.
- During EMDR, a client is tapped back in neurologically to distressing or traumatic experiences, including any associated sensations.
- Once tuned in to these memories and sensations, the therapist will provide some kind of outer stimulus for the client to focus on, often their hand moving backwards and forwards.
- This dual focus of attention, where the client is encouraged to focus on something external as well as something internal, has the effect of processing traumatic experiences and sensations to resolution.
- The mind/brain is effectively distracted into “blurring” or letting go of memories and associated sensations, lessening their intensity.
- As a result, clients are greatly unburdened from distressing memories and sensations to the point where they are much less bothered by them.
- In the case of PLP, this means the pain sensations are often greatly lessened or eliminated altogether, because the unprocessed memories and sensations associated with the loss of the limb are processed using the EMDR.
- The studies appear to show EMDR to be effective in around 80% of cases of PLP.
- See our article on the 8 step EMDR process for more on how it works.