Medical Microfiction: Phantom Limb Syndrome

Redrawing the Map

He had a full tank, a thousand in the bank, and a newly acquired degree in psychology. With nothing to lose, Arnold hit the road for Canada. He dreamed of an expatriate lifestyle: getting drunk abroad, meeting exotic women, and other Hemingwayesque fantasies.

But when he reached the border between Montana and Saskatchewan, he found a steep cliff abutting an endless ocean. Where had Canada gone? He sped up and down the unknown coastline looking for a clue. As the sun set, Arnold found a solitary billboard overlooking the place where Canada had been:

Dear America,

Sawed off!




Canadian flag.
Canadian flag. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s a terrible, terrible pun at the end. I apologize for its sheer awfulness. Or is it awesomeness? I’ll leave it for you to decide.

Phantom limb syndrome is a perception of feeling in a limb that has been amputated. A person experiencing this syndrome may feel as if the missing limb is still there and functioning normally. Most commonly, the person will experience pain, often severe.

English: Author: btarski Date: 6/23/06
The sensory homunculus shows how the brain organizes input from your body parts. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It happens because the brain rewires itself after an amputation to make up for the lack of nerve signals that usually come in from a particular body region. Unfortunately, the regions of the postcentral gyrus responsible for collecting signals from the limbs are located near the regions for the face. That means for people with phantom limb syndrome, touching different areas of your face can make you feel sensations on your phantom limb.

Today’s story is an illustration of phantom limb syndrome from the brain’s perspective. Arnold has never been to Canada, but he’s certain it’s right where it should be. After all, he’s still getting signals from the region. It’s not until he drives all the way to the border that he realizes the truth: that Canada has been gone for a long time, and somehow he never got the memo. In the same way, a person who has experienced amputation will receive nerve signals that make the limb seem like it’s present, but in reality it’s gone.

Moral of the story: if you’re going to Canada, call ahead first.

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