Fighting the Phantom Pain: Breakthroughs in Prosthetic Research

The loss of a limb is physically and mentally devastating. Some amputees never fully recover from this experience. After the initial scars heal, the psychological trauma can last a lifetime. “Phantom pain” is a term used to describe the sensations amputees experience, which appears to come from the lost appendage. They may feel stinging in fingertips they no longer have. The nerve endings leave “ghosts” that the patient still feels, and they sometimes carry this pain as a constant reminder of what they’ve lost.

Phantom pain symptoms are usually treated with medication, but there are alternatives that treat the seemingly physical sensations and the psychological effects. Acupuncture and massage therapy offer nerve stimulation and relaxation, and virtual reality and mirror box therapy sessions can help the patient’s brain cope with the cognitive effects of losing a limb. The disconnect between the brain and the phantom appendage causes severe issues for amputees, and biotechnology aims to bridge that gap. 

Bionic Breakthroughs Are Changing Lives

Bionic technology has stepped out of science fiction and into the real world. Modern bionic prosthetics use an array of sensors to keep track of the user’s movements and environments, limiting the risk of injuries often associated with traditional mechanical prosthetics. The technology is making strides toward advanced regenerative technologies, but until we can re-grow limbs made of flesh and blood, bionic prosthetics offer much more functionality, safety, and an increased range of motion compared to traditional models.

Recently, a double amputee named Les Baugh was the first personal to use a bilateral shoulder prosthetic and effectively control both prosthetic arms at once—simply by thinking about it. Cybernetic interfaces allow amputees to communicate with their prosthetics by simple thoughts, and the technology is making huge strides.

The Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the United States government initiated the Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program in 2006 to advance upper-limb prosthetic technology. A study that included 35 volunteer amputees resulted in an Arm System for commercial development that included advanced modular prosthetic systems that included sockets, which offer better range of motion and control. This program is just one example of the astounding progress made to the benefit of amputees. Regaining the abilities of their lost limbs is just one step on the road to fighting phantom pain, but it’s a big one.

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