phantom limbs


blockquote>In the mid-sixteenth century, the great French surgeon Ambroise Paré discovered what he described as a “strange and grievous fact.” As surgeon to François I, Paré had accompanied the king on military campaigns of exceptional brutality. Thousands of French cavalrymen were killed and wounded by arquebuses, precursors of the musket that looked like small hand-held cannons and could blast even the most heavily armored bodies to pieces. Paré treated the wounds made by these weapons with turpentine and rose water, and he pioneered a safer method of amputation. But while creating his signature tourniquets, he found he could not tie up arteries without bruising nerves as well. The “strange and grievous fact” that arose as a consequence was that men who had lost their limbs felt the limbs to be still there. Not only did the patients imagine them, but they sometimes felt pain in these limbs, tried to walk on their non-existent legs, or reach for objects with a missing arm. Paré designed artificial body parts for his amputees, beautiful constructions to be made in metal by armorers, but he could do nothing for these strange configurations of the mind.

Paré was the first to set down the phenomenon in writing; centuries later, in the course of another war, the writer and neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell gave it a name. He said his patients were suffering from “phantom limbs”— since these “vivid hallucinations” were in fact a form of haunting. “Nearly every man who loses a limb,” Mitchell wrote, “carries about with him a constant or inconstant phantom of the missing member, a sensory ghost of that much of himself.”

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