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Phantom Pain

Without prior knowledge it would hardly occur to anyone that it is possible to feel pain in an amputated limb, exactly where the missing arm or leg used to be. Yet this is precisely what happens in most cases. Individuals who have had an amputation not only feel the presence of the missing limb but can also feel the pain. The pain is either occasional and acute or constant with somewhat less intensity. In some cases the pain gradually subsides over the years, in other cases it persists for life.

Christopher Vasey

One of the oldest known accounts of the phantom limb phenomenon, with its associated painful sensations, comes from Ambroise Paré (1510–1590), a famous French military surgeon. Self-taught, he learned the art and skill of surgery on the battlefields, where the use of swords, spears and early firearms was causing awful injuries that often necessitated an amputation. He wrote about this: ‘For the patients, long after the amputation, say they still feel pain in the amputated part. Of this they complain strongly, a thing worthy of wonder and almost incredible to people who have not experienced this.’ In the middle of the 19th century, a short story with the title ‘The Case of George Dedlow’ was published in The Atlantic Monthly magazine. This is the tale of a young man who was severely injured in the Battle of Chickamauga during the American Civil War. He was transferred to a rural hospital, where he underwent an operation. After having regained consciousness, he was not aware that both legs had been amputated. He asked an attendant to rub his left calf as he had a cramp. When the attendant lifted the bedcovers, both were shocked to see that he had no more legs. It turned out later that the anonymously written story was authored by Silas Weir Mitchell (1829–1914), an American neurologist who gave the first objective clinical and thoroughly researched descriptions of the sensations and pain associated with the phantom limb syndrome. Present-day victims of this phenomenon include those who have lost a leg or a foot from stepping on anti-personnel mines. Rahsa, a young Lebanese girl, tells of her experience: ‘When I lie down at night, my missing leg hurts so much. It feels as if it is still there.’ Phantom pain is also mentioned in works of fiction. For example, in Herman Melville’s (1819–1891) whaling novel ‘Moby Dick’, Captain Ahab, the main protagonist, having lost a leg directs the ship’s carpenter to fashion a prosthetic leg for him. In the ensuing dialogue, Ahab says he feels another leg in the same exact location of the missing leg.

The scientific explanation of phantom pain is along the lines that the brain has nerve cell modules that correspond to every single part of the body. Any given module will persist after an amputation. Since the brain is constantly receiving sensory input from the whole body, it could falsely attribute some of these sensations to a limb that no longer exists. Therefore, the affected person would believe that he feels pain in the missing limb. Thus, that the phantom sensation is probably a projection caused by stimulation in the brain of the nerve cell module corresponding to the affected limb. A study conducted on children born with a missing limb, however, contradicts this explanation. Since these children have been from birth without a certain limb, the brain could not have preserved the pertinent module. Nevertheless, they also feel something in the place where the limb, which they never had, would have been.

In science, materialistic approaches predominate. These assume that only matter exists: for science, the human being is no more than the physical body. For materialist thinkers, cells – thanks to their genetic key – self-aggregate to form the physical body.

Fortunately, there is another more comprehensive way to explain things. Accordingly, the human being is more than a body of flesh and blood: in fact, he is an immaterial spirit incarnated in a physical body. Only the presence of the spirit can give life to the body. Moreover, the spirit is protected by various finer coverings, which are put on during its descent towards earth, each cloak corresponding to the increasing density of its surroundings. Together with its finer cloaks, the spirit is what we usually call the soul. The soul likewise shows the human form. The soul is what already incarnates into the physical body at birth; when death occurs, it detaches itself from the body. The outermost fine-material cloak surrounding the spirit connects body and soul; this is the so-called astral body, already mentioned by many clairvoyants.

The astral body acts like a three-dimensional prototype for the physical body, its model as it were. Accordingly, the cells do not aggregate by themselves to create the body, but they rather conform to an invisible blueprint. Thus, while the organism develops, the pre-existing astral body is already active; it regulates the formation of the physical body, which will later adopt the same form. Moreover, it thereby ensures that the proliferating cells develop into the different tissues such as muscle, heart tissue, nerve cells and so on. But its task is not limited to the formation of the body. It is also involved, via the meridians (of Chinese medicine), in the animation of the organs, as well as in the harmonious coordination of the various body functions.

Being part of a model that is different and, to a certain extent, independent from the physical body, an astral body limb will persist despite the loss of the corresponding physical limb. The astral prototype of a leg, therefore, does not disappear together with the removal of its physical counterpart. And whilst the nerves may be severed physically, the stimuli impulses are still conveyed across the astral body, which is not insensitive. So it is that people who have had an amputation can feel pressure or pain at the site of the corresponding missing limb, the aching limb being invisible.

Phantom pain is a clear indication that the human being is not merely a body of flesh and blood; also, above all, the true self is of a finer agency. This view would certainly not meet with disagreement from a famous amputee, Lord Nelson (1758–1805), the English admiral, who lost his right arm at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. The feelings he was aware of in the fingers of his amputated arm had him state that he saw this as a direct proof of the existence of the soul.

Christopher Vasey is a naturopath and writer living in Switzerland. He is a published author of books on natural medicine and on spiritual themes.  ch.vasey@vtx.ch
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