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Can you still feel a limb that's gone? - Joshua W. Pate


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The vast majority of people who’ve lost a limb can still feel it — not as a memory or vague shape, but in complete lifelike detail. They can flex their phantom fingers and sometimes even feel the chafe of a watch band or the throb of an ingrown toenail. What causes these phantom limb sensations? Joshua W. Pate explains how the brain reacts to a missing limb.

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A quick detour through the history of phantom pain may interest you. In 1552, French surgeon Ambroise Paré first described phantom pain. He operated on wounded soldiers who had pain in their amputated limbs. Since then, a range of people (including French scientist, mathematician, and philosopher René Descartes; German physician Aaron Lemos; Scottish anatomist Sir Charles Bell; and American physician Silas Weir Mitchell) have written about different aspects of the condition. One notable firsthand account came from Scottish physician William Porterfield, who had one of his legs amputated in the early eighteenth century. He was the first person to consider the condition in terms of sensory perception. Since the 1990s, research into the condition has exploded.

You may have heard of ‘neuroplasticity’. This is the ability of neurons (nerve cells) to change and connect differently. Put simply, everything in your brain is always changing all the time—including your homunculus. Your homunculus is the part of your brain that acts like a map of your body. It is a map that changes depending on the messages that the brain receives. For example, representation of the left hand is larger in violinists than in non-violinists.

The nervous system is extremely complex and there is still much to be discovered about it. Recent research suggests that people suffering from persistent pain can benefit from reconceptualising pain; understanding more about what pain is, why pain exists, and how pain is experienced. Part of this is understanding exemplar types of pain, such as phantom pain, in order to better understand concepts common to all pain. For example, studies on educational interventions for pain (including information about the “map” in your brain) have shown that this can improve pain, patient knowledge of pain, and function. It can also reduce psychosocial factors, enhance movement, and minimize healthcare utilization. To learn more about pain and its management, books such as Explain Pain and Manage Your Pain are highly recommended, and keep an eye out for more videos and resources in the future.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Joshua W. Pate
  • Director Tolga Yıldız
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Art Director Tolga Yıldız
  • Illustrator İbrahim Hakkı Uslu
  • Producer Serin İnan
  • 3D Animator Önay Günkut
  • Storyboard Artist İbrahim Hakkı Uslu
  • Composer Tolga Yıldız
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Fact-Checker Francisco Diez

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