Seven months have passed since my hands were “revised” with skin graft surgery, nearly five months since I completed 60 dives in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. The weather is warming, the trees are in full leaf, the scent of lilacs lingers. And for unknown reasons, I have begun to experience phantom sensations in my partially amputated right middle finger.
Not pain. Just itching. It’s as if my finger is tingling in a non-existent tip. Quite peculiar. I want to scratch it, but there’s no there, there. Instead, I rub the bulb-like stump that remains, with its confused nerve signals that tell my brain I’m touching the side of my finger when I’m actually feeling what is now the top.
Usually, if I rub the stump for a few minutes, my brain reinterprets the sensation and the itching goes away. I wonder how long this will go on.
There are no ready remedies for phantom limb pain (fortunately, my experience is more benign). Non-invasive therapies include mild nerve stimulation with a TENS device, acupuncture and the mind game of a mirror box, which involves doing symmetrical exercises using the mirror image of your intact limb as a cue, while imagining that your amputated limb is mimicking the same movements.
My phantom itching is so intermittent that I doubt if exploring these or other options is worth the time. But I find the whole experience most curious, albeit annoying. How is it that my brain still thinks I have an itchy finger tip? The location of the itch is always the same, about a half inch above my stump, where the top joint used to be. The finger was actually longer before the surgery. Why that specific location in nothingness?
There is also the strange confusion of how I’m actually touching objects. All these months after surgery, the fact that skin from the side of my finger was used to cover the remaining stump still signals to my brain that I’m brushing objects with that side, even as the skin is now effectively oriented in a 90-degree angle to its original position.
I’m trying to teach myself how to consciously reinterpret what I’m sensing. How odd, to be dealing with this most basic way of interacting with the world at a time when so many assumptions about what is real and true are under siege.
Sensations are hard-wired. Or not. Sometimes they merely shimmer.
Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.
Image Credit: Sebastian Spindler