Losing a limb is a life-changing experience. There's not only the obvious physical loss to cope with but the emotional impact of such an event can be absolutely devastating. How do you cope?
Everyone deals with amputation in different ways. It's really important to allow yourself to grieve and to actually feel your loss. In the early stages of grief it's vital that you speak to a caring friend or a mental health counsellor. Professional grief counselling will help you through the phases of the grieving process until you reach a stage of acceptance. How long this takes will vary from person to person but once you are able to accept your new body image, you'll be able to move forward and embrace your new life.
Remember that the impact of your loss will also affect your family and friends. It's important to get things in perspective and deal with one day at a time as you begin to pick up the threads of your life and get back to a normal routine. Enjoy every success and achievement, no matter how trivial it may seem, and don't allow yourself to be demoralised by perceived obstacles.
Phantom limb sensation and pain
An early challenge in your recovery may be learning to cope with phantom limb sensation and/or pain. Phantom limb sensation is the feeling that the limb is still present and most amputees experience this to some degree or another, although only a small percentage experience phantom limb pain. This is more common in older amputees.
The phenomenon of phantom pain is not very well understood by the medical profession. The current theory suggests that brain reorganisation may be the culprit. The brain loses input from certain nerves following amputation. As recovery progresses, the neurons are reactivated in response to input from the remaining nerves. It's thought that pressure applied to the residual limb triggers a response in that area of the brain that previously responded to the nervous impulses from the missing limb. This in turn triggers sensations which are felt as if the limb were still present. Feelings vary from cramps, burning or aching to a shock-like sensation and these feelings are exacerbated by stress, anxiety, fatigue or fear. There are many different ways of treating phantom limb pain and successful therapies range from acupuncture, chiropractic, surgical intervention and biofeedback. Your doctor or prosthetist will be best placed to advise you on the best way to treat any phantom limb pain you are experiencing.
Amputees who experienced phantom limb pain during their recovery have found the following techniques of benefit:
Removing the prosthesis if pain occurs whilst wearing it Moving around, changing position or massaging the limb Wrapping the residual limb in a heating pad or warm, soft towel Wrapping the residual limb in a cold pack Mentally relaxing the missing limb Contracting the muscles in the residual limb then releasing them slowly Taking supplements such as vitamins E, A and B12, potassium, calcium and magnesium.
Stay fit and healthy
Clearly, high quality prosthetic care is vitally important for a successful recovery but keeping fit and healthy is extremely important too.
Physical therapy, which unfortunately can be hard work, is very important and shouldn't be ignored as ultimately the effort will be worth it. Therapy keeps the residual limb loose and comfortable, increases muscle tone and coordination and helps keep joints flexible. You will also learn how to use your new prosthesis correctly as you adapt to carrying out daily chores.
Practicing good hygiene is extremely important in order to keep the residual limb healthy. Your doctor or prosthetist will advise you on this. If you find that the socket or any aspect of your prosthesis is uncomfortable, seek advice straight away and don't just suffer in silence and assume that you just have to put up with it – you don't!
It goes without saying that living a healthy lifestyle and eating a good diet is important for all of us but it is especially so for an amputee. Fresh, nutritious food and regular exercise will keep medical conditions such as diabetes at bay. Staying fit and not becoming overweight will increase your strength, aid stability and go a long way to preventing problems occurring with your prosthesis.
Shared experience is one of the most beneficial elements of the healing process. You aren't alone in your new situation and meeting with others who have 'been there and done it' is really important especially in the early days of recovery. There are plenty of support groups and organisations available to new amputees and your doctor or prosthetist will be able to put you in touch with them.
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