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Can acupuncture help painful phantom pains?

Q:  My farther has had his leg amputated 4 years ago and still has very painful phantom pains, can this be treated with acupuncture?

A:  Phantom limb pain can be a very distressing phenomenon.

There have been a number of studies over the years which describe the use of acupuncture in individual cases, and if you google 'acupuncture phantom limb pain' you will find examples such as:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6972207

We are also aware of a paper published in the Journal of another acupuncture association which cites the following papers about phantom limb sensation.

Bradbrook D (2004) Acupuncture in Medicine Acupuncture Treatment Of Phantom Limb Pain And Phantom Limb Sensation in Amputees. 22; 2; 93-97

Hecker H. -U et al (2008) Color Atlas of Acupuncture 2nd Ed. Thieme, Stuttgart

Hill A (1999) Journal of Pain and Symptom Management Phantom Limb Pain: A review of the Literature on Attributes and Potential Mechanisms. 17; 2; 125-142

Johnson M.I. et al (1992) Pain Clinic Treatment of Resistant Phantom Limb Pain by Acupuncture: A Case Report. 5; 2; 105-112

Liaw M.-Y et al (1994) American Journal of Acupuncture Therapeutic Trial of Acupuncutre in Phantom Limb Pain of Amputees. 22; 3; 205-213

Monga T.N et al (1981) Archives of Physical Medicine in Rehabilitation Acupuncture in Phantom Limb Pain. 62; 5; 229-2321

The mechanism by which the treatment works is not at all clear from a Western medical point of view. From a Chinese medicine perspective it is perhaps easier to make sense of the appearance of the pain from the fact that the channels which run through the affected area spread out across the body, and even in 'conventional' Chinese medicine treatment it is not unknown to treat a problem in the lower left limb by using points in the upper right limb. The fact that the opposite limb is missing would not necessarily render the treatment useless.

The best advice we can give, especially when there is so little case evidence to point to, is to visit a BAcC member local to your father for advice on his specific circumstances. There may be a number of initial soundings which he or she could make to determine whether treatment may be of benefit.

The problem with conditions like this is that there are case studies which offer encouragement, but nobody publishes the results of case studies where things don't work, so for the small number which have been successful there may be ten times as many where treatment was tried and failed. It is best not to over-excited by the fact that some treatments work. Everything works for someone, but that doesn't mean that somehing works for everyone.

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