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Up to 80% of amputees report phantom limb pain (PLP), the management of which remains a considerable challenge. Here I describe the successful treatment with scalp acupuncture (SA) of a woman with PLP.
A 71-year-old woman with no significant medical history was injured in a road-traffic accident in January 2010, leaving her with a fracture of the right elbow and right scapula, and multiple lacerations in her left foot and right inguinal area. The fracture caused displacement of the middle third of her right radius from the distal end of her right ulna. This, combined with other fractures in the fifth metacarpal bone and the proximal phalanx, resulted in almost total traumatic amputation. Her right arm was amputated surgically below the elbow.
Recurrent wound infections occurred in her right forearm stump. As a result she underwent three debridement operations and split-thickness skin graft surgery. A skin rash, diagnosed as erythema multiforme, developed over the upper trunk after the operation. Steroid treatment stabilised the condition. After a hospital stay of about 1.5 months, she was discharged with outpatient follow-up.
The woman had PLP and phantom limb sensation (PLS) after the surgical amputation. She described this as “severe numbness and pain from the phantom fingers and through her right forearm stump”, and could feel the missing limb's position in space and even attempted to use it to reach for objects. She took pharmacological agents such as barbiturates, muscle relaxants, antidepressants, analgesics, etc, for almost 2 years. However, the drugs did not relieve her PLP. The pain persisted throughout the night, affecting her sleep and overall quality of life. As the drugs were ineffective and various side effects occurred she decided to stop taking them.
In November 2011 she visited our Chinese medicine clinic for treatment of heartburn, constipation and PLP. We suggested acupuncture treatment. She had not previously received any form of acupuncture and was sceptical about its effectiveness in treating PLP. However, after an explanation of the procedure, she agreed to the treatment.
Initial examination showed that the patient's stump had fully healed; the scar was uneven; the intact portion of her limb had normal muscle power and full range of movement. Changes in PLP and PLS intensity were measured using an 11-point numeric rating Visual Analogue Scale (VAS)1 at each session. In the first session her VAS score for PLP was 10 and for PLS 8.
Four scalp points and one scalp line were selected for treatment. The four points were the Sishencong (EX-HN1) on the vertex of the head, anterior, posterior and lateral to the Baihui (GV20) (see figure 1). The acupuncture line was the MS7 (posterior oblique line of the vertex-temporal from GV20) oblique to Qubin (GB7) on the contralateral side of the phantom limb (see figure 2). The needles used (0.30×25 mm) were inserted 1 cun at an oblique angle of around 15° into the subaponeurotic space. After insertion, the needles were stimulated by rapid small-amplitude lifting and thrusting (in and out) movements for 1 min, resulting in a marked de qi effect. The needles were left in the scalp for 20 min. The patient underwent six sessions of treatment, twice a week for 3 weeks.
Immediately after the first session, the patient noted significant relief of both PLP and PLS. In the second session just 2 days later she had a VAS score for PLP of 4, and for PLS of 3. She reported no adverse effects and continued with the same SA treatment. At final review 6 months after her final treatment in December 2011, she was completely free of PLP and PLS.
In about half of amputees, PLP occurs immediately after the amputation. The mechanisms of PLP are unknown, but cortical and peripheral mechanisms may be responsible.2
Treatment of PLP includes drugs, invasive motor cortex stimulation techniques and conservative treatment. Although pharmacological treatments such as barbiturates, muscle relaxants, antidepressants, neuroleptic agents and anticonvulsants have been recommended, their wide range of side effects is a cause for concern. Since most treatments for PLP have limited effectiveness,3 its management remains a considerable challenge. To our knowledge, few studies have explored the clinical effect of acupuncture in PLP.4 ,5 We believe that this is the first report of a patient who had complete relief from PLP after SA.
Experimental studies show that neuroplastic changes of the sensorimotor cortex are often associated with PLP.6 ,7 This highlights the use of motor and parietal cortex stimulation in the treatment of PLP.8 Increased knowledge of the proposed mechanisms of cortical reorganisation has added to our understanding of SA treatment protocols for PLP and PLS. The SA line MS7 is located on the lateral side of the head, 1.5 cun parallel and posterior to MS6, extending from GV20 to GB7, and related to the underlying sensory area of the brain.9 The main therapeutic claim for the SA line MS7 is relief of pain, numbness and sensory disorders.10
The extra point Sishencong is located on the vertex of the head and forms a group of four points around the GV20.11 The main therapeutic effect claimed for Sishencong is the relief of insomnia, and it has been shown that acupuncture at Sishencong enhances cardiac vagal function and suppresses sympathetic activity.12 Although there are numerous theories about the underlying mechanism of PLP, association with cardiovascular hyperactivity and greater sympathetic response has been proposed.13
In our case, an elderly woman had had PLP and PLS for almost 2 years, which was relieved after a short course of SA treatment, avoiding further use of drugs. We suggest that SA should be tried as an alternative approach to the treatment of PLP and PLS in patients who do not respond well to conventional treatment. Long-term, randomised, controlled and double-blind studies of a larger group of patients are warranted to explore the efficacy of SA in the patient population.
The authors are grateful to Jason Tseng for his assistance as scientific advisor in this research and his medical illustration.
Contributors C-CT was involved in the development of research protocols, design of the study, carrying out literature review and writing of the article. P-YC and Y-CL contributed to acquisition of data and carrying out the article review. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
Competing interests None.
Patient consent Obtained.
Ethics approval Chang Gung Memorial Hospital (No 102-4324B).
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
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