Because reflexology’s primary effect is on the nervous system, it has always made sense to me that it might be beneficial to people experiencing phantom sensations. A 30-week study supports my hypothesis.
The pilot study, conducted by physiotherapist and reflexologist Tina Brown at Prosthetic Services Centre, Wolverhampton, England, found that reflexology was “effective in eradicating or reducing the intensity and duration of phantom limb pain” for the seven men and three women who participated in the study.[i]
Today, I’ll share common complaints of and treatments for phantom pain and the role of reflexology and aromatherapy.
You might want to read my post of March 3rd first (Do You Need a Body to Feel Your Body?) so as to understand some of the latest scientific assumptions and challenges regarding the mystery of phantom pain.
Keep in mind that amputees are not the only people who experience phantom sensations. Paraplegics (where there is a complete break of the spinal cord and no feeling in, or control over, the body below the break) also report phantom sensations.
The typical complaints are:
– burning sensations (most common report);
– sharp, shooting pains;
– a sense that the hand is clenched, fingers digging into the palm; hand feels tired and achy;
– cramps in the calf and/or foot;
– red-hot, searing pain in toes;
– intense sensations in the limb mimicking feelings before amputation (such as a bunion);
– painful fatigue (when phantom make continuous movements – like cycling).
Half of those with persistent, long-term phantom pain fail to respond to any form of treatment whatsoever.
Some sufferers benefit from stimulation of the stump with electric current, vibration and/or acupuncture. Some gain considerable relief with pharmaceutical drugs, while others are aided through relaxation techniques and hypnosis. Might my above emphasis suggest a correlation with reflexology?
Another treatment approach tested by Ronald Melzack and his team is the manipulation of the limbic system of the brain through drug injections. Their success at decreasing pain led me to wonder about the use of essential oils.
Aromatic molecules, conveyed to the limbic system by olfactory impulses, interact with this portion of the cerebral hemisphere to create impressions associated with previous experiences and emotions such as memory, pain and pleasure (amongst others). Could inhalation and application of carefully chosen essential oils at the stump also contribute to a decrease in pain?
Over the years I have had very positive results both instructing and giving sessions to amputees. Situations varied from full and partial loss of fingers to amputations of the lower leg (distal to the knee) and complete lower extremity (at the groin).
My sessions are constitutional with some emphasis on the reflexes of the brain, especially those of the cerebrum. I include three specific approaches and have found the best tolerance with 30 or 40-minute sessions, not longer:
1. Work the stump. Envision the five longitudinal zones and the reflexes therein. Work as you would the plantar/palmar, lateral and medial surfaces.
2. Work the phantom. Although this may sound crazy, working the phantom limb as you would a physical one, elicits positive feedback from amputees. They do feel the rhythmical touch of reflexology as you “work the air.” Gauge where the missing limb would be and just do it!
3. Application of analgesic, anti-inflammatory, nervine and/or sedative essential oils on the stump. I use castor oil as the carrier. (See March 1st posting Sole Salvation as to why.) Infuse one or two of the oils into the air. If you are a trained aromatherapist, make an inhaler that the client can use daily at home.
If the individual is unable to receive work on either the stump or phantom limb (some days may be like that), then work the corresponding limb. For example, work the left hand if the left lower leg is missing.
Although reflexology is most certainly not the answer to everyone’s phantom limb pain, it is a pleasant, non-invasive therapy that does help some folks living with this difficult situation. With amputations on the rise, it’s just a matter of time before someone shows up at your door reporting pain in an invisible limb.
Please share your experiences with this population.
[i] Brown C, Lido C, “Reflexology: A treatment plan for phantom limb pain?” Physiotherapy 2007;93(S1):S185