New method eases amputees’ post-surgery woes

New method eases amputees’ post-surgery woes

A new amputation technique pioneered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers new hope for patients who suffer the troublesome feelings of “phantom pain” that commonly plague amputees after surgery.

Phantom pain is the term for the feelings many amputees experience in which they feel that an amputated limb is still attached. Most suffer a sensation of pain or itching in the limb that actually has been removed. Phantom pain, also called phantom limb, is a nervous system condition stemming from the spinal cord and brain.

With the limb absent, relieving the itching or pain is elusive. But MIT’s new method, called Ewing Amputation, is being shown to prevent such pain. A Ewing Amputation recreates the push/pull dynamic by surgically connecting muscles that normally operate in pairs, forcing one muscle to stretch in response to the other muscle contracting.

This is key to the brain processing the limb’s presence and movement. Without such cooperative movement, the brain can become confused, and phantom pain results. The surgery is now being studied in a clinical trial.

The man for whom the technique is named, a rock climber who was the first to undergo the surgery several years ago, says it has allowed him to use a bionic foot almost effortlessly. He describes perceived tingling as “nerve noise,” but not pain or itching, at the site of the original foot.

Ewing has returned to rock climbing, relying on the new biological connections formed in surgery to maneuver his prosthetic. For the team at MIT, it seems there could hardly be a better result. Keep climbing, Mr. Ewing!

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