Coping With the Loss of a Limb
by Maria Adams, MS, MPH, RD
Some people are born with a limb difference, for others it is the result of injury or disease such as diabetes, and peripheral vascular disease (PVD). Regardless of the cause, losing all or part of a limb is a life-changing event that can cause grief and decreased self-esteem.
When you lose a limb, you lose part of your physical self. Grieving, therefore, is both normal and expected. There are five stages of grieving that people commonly go through after a serious loss:
How long it takes a person to pass through these stages varies. Many pass through each phase quickly; others get stuck in one phase or go through one phase without going through the others. Also, stages can occur in different orders.
According to a study in the journal Behavioral Medicine, a person’s age, the site of limb loss, and the cause of amputation all affect how an individual copes with losing a limb. For example, people who lose their limb unexpectedly may be more likely to react with denial (characterized by the refusal to accept the situation and its impact on well-being) than an individual whose amputation was the result of a long-term disease. Furthermore, people in denial are less likely to seek the help they need to move towards the final stage of acceptance and hope.
Body Image TOP
The loss of a limb can have a serious negative impact on a person’s body image. Children, for example, may feel “different” from their peers. Adults may find that their negative self-image affects their sexual relationships. Research has shown that when faced with a disfiguring medical condition, people who feel self-conscious about their disfigurement respond by avoiding social situations. Unfortunately, this can trigger depression. If you are feeling self-conscious about your limb loss, try to remember that your physical appearance does not matter to those who care about you.
Phantom Sensation and Phantom Limb Pain TOP
Phantom limb syndrome occurs when the sensory experience, including pain, is still present in the limb that was amputated. It is natural to have that feeling and it occurs in most amputees. It may be caused by nerve cells that were altered after the amputation. The altered cells still continue to send and receive messages. Phantom limb pain can be controlled with medications.
Taking Action TOP
Grieving is a normal part of coping with limb loss. Here are some steps you can take to help get through this difficult period.
Achieving a Sense of Well Being TOP
In the end, it is important to realize that although you may have lost a part of you, it does not change who you are. If you don’t already, you will soon realize the truth of the age-old saying, "beauty comes from within." Facing the challange may actually help let what you have on the inside shine through. You are still the same person, with the same mind and soul.
American Physical Therapy Association
Amputee Coalition of America
Amputee Coalition of Canada
The College of Canadian Family Physicians
Axelrod, J. The 5 Stages of Loss and Grief. Psych Central website. Available at: http://psychcentra.... Accessed on September 9, 2013.
Fisher K, Hanspal RS, Marks L. Return to work after lower limb amputation. Int J Rehabil Res. 2003;26(1):51-56.
Gallagher P, MacLachlan M. Psychological adjustment and coping in adults with prosthetic limbs. Behavioral Medicine. 1999;25(3):117-124.
Maguire P, Parkes CM. Surgery and loss of body parts. BMJ. 1998;316(7137):1086-1088.
Pain: Hope through research. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: http://www.ninds.n.... Updated August 30, 2013. Accessed September 9, 2013.
Smith DG. Facing Amputation: Questions to ask your surgeon and rehabilitation team. First Step: A Guide for Adapting to Limb Loss. 2003;3:7-11.
Wetterhahn KA, Hanson C, Levy CE. Effect of participation in physical activity on body image of amputees. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2002;81(3):194-201.
Williamson GM. Living with limb differences: building self-esteem. First Step: A Guide for Adapting to Limb Loss. 2001;2:72–73.
van der Schans CP, Geertzen, JH, Schoppen, T, Dijkstra, PU. Phantom pain and health-related quality of life in lower limb amputees. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2002;24(4):429-436.
Last reviewed September 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 09/09/2013