SPOTLIGHT ON HYPNOSIS: A Case of Phantom Pain
By Jimmy Eldred Quast
When an individual has had a limb amputated, either accidentally or as a surgical procedure, they may, in some cases, experience pain in the missing limb. This is known as phantom pain. Imagine, if you can, how frustrating this kind of pain might be to both the amputee and to doctors who are trying to relieve it. During the summer of the year 2000, I received a referral from a physician who wanted to find out whether hypnotherapy might bring relief to a woman who was suffering with an excruciating level of phantom pain in her no-longer-present right leg.
Alice (not her real name) had been an occupational therapist for about forty years. When she broke her leg in a skiing accident, complications occurred, and she underwent an amputation below the knee. Three years later, the intolerable phantom pain began.
Large doses of drugs that were prescribed left Alice unable to function, but still did not reduce the pain to a tolerable level. Further surgery was offered, but the surgeon had serious doubts that he would be able to improve on the work he had done during the original treatment of the stump after amputation.
What makes this case stand out for me, right now, is that Alice wrote an article about her experiences with hypnotherapy following our work together. She knew that I frequently submitted articles to the local newspapers, so she gave me her article and asked me to submit it for publication some day, if I felt it to be suitable. Therefore, the remainder of today’s article is Alice’s first person story.
It had been six weeks of unpredictable, unbelievable pain in my amputated leg. Actually the pain emanated from the part of my leg that was now missing. Whenever it occurred, in church, in my car, in the store, or in the house, I couldn’t get it to stop. As a matter of fact I could not cause it either. I was at my wits end. I now had to succumb to addictive drugs or surgery if I was ever going to wear my well fitted prosthesis and continue on with my life.
It hadn’t always been like this. Of course the first six months after the salvaging of the middle part of my leg, there had been a lot of pain - especially in my knee. But that was three years ago. I had done well in rehab, regained the ability to drive my car, wore two-inch heels and loved swimming and light aerobics. Then the phantom pain struck.
I had now reached the point where I spent hours a day crying and cradling my aching leg in my arms as you would a baby with colic. This went on day and night and the associated depression was overwhelming. Here I was a therapist with 40 years of experience and I couldn’t help myself. In desperation I checked with the doctor about the certified and experienced hypnotist in our community. With nothing to lose, I made an appointment, explained my needs and my desire to self-control the pain without drugs.
Our sessions were relaxed, informal, informative with no trickery or spells. I had no idea of what to expect, but because of the level of the hypnotist’s experience, I gained a lot of insight into the mechanism surrounding this pain. We produced a tape for home use and the first session was over. From that day on I had a different idea about this pain in a part of my body that no longer existed physically but was etched into my brain through a long life of sensory experiences. My darkest pains were the memory of the accident and the life saving processes that had to be used. My sharpest pains ranged from the feeling of tourniquet pressure to feeling as if my leg was boiling in oil and everything in between. You name it and I have felt it. It was like living with mental fireworks. At the height of the attacks I would have three to four episodes a day lasting up to an hour and a half. Following the first session with the hypnotist and the use of the tape (as well as my new thought pattern?) I had only one attack in two weeks and that attack I was able to shut down myself. I COULDN’T BELIEVE THE RADICAL CHANGE IN PAIN, and no drug hangover!! At the second and third and final session, we went over other indicators of an impending attack and I have been in control ever since. I became aware of an interesting coincidence between pain and conscious or suppressed negative feelings. Feelings like anger, fear, etc., may trigger the release of strong survivor body chemicals that my guillotined leg nerve endings were and are sensitive to. So a change in attitude plus a conscious focus on my body state through hypnosis, and trust in the hypnotist resulted in a remarkable change in the events of my life. In my own professional experience I had worked with many amputees but this personal experience alerted me to the many ramifications of successful rehabilitation.
Note: hypnosis for medical issues may require a physician’s referral.