Limb Loss Education

Purple Heart

The military medical system seeks to provide the best care possible for those individuals injured while serving our nation. Because war injuries commonly affect the extremities and sometimes result in the loss of a limb, amputation has long been a core competency in military medicine. Our goal at Walter Reed Medical Center and the Amputee Health Care Center of Excellence is to continue this tradition and ensure that the latest treatment options are investigated and applied in appropriate, considered fashion, recognizing the time-honored lessons of care for battlefield injuries.

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Phantom sensation. Phantom pain. Sound ethereal, don't they? Vaporous. Ghostlike. Synonyms for the word "phantom" include "apparition," "illusion," "immaterial," "nonexistent" and "thing imagined." But we can throw out those synonyms. When talking about phantom sensation and phantom pain, these phantoms are REAL. These phenomena do, in fact, exist, and they can be complex, manifesting themselves in a variety of forms, feelings and sensations. Some phantoms bring pain; others do not. That is why healthcare providers have started to use the words "phantom pain" and "phantom sensation" differently. Both phantoms are real, but they are very different from each other.

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Those with limb loss can be like travelers to a foreign country. Suddenly, they can feel like a stranger in a strange land, one that is not designed with them in mind. Life has become different, and sometimes difficult. One's sense of place, and even self, is shaken and has changed.

And like those journeying to a new shore, individuals with limb loss can, at times, gain large benefits from being with others who are like themselves. Sometimes, there is a need to discuss common experiences and problems. Other times, it is an eager desire to tell about recent discoveries, such as a fantastic new device or a knowledgeable and capable healthcare provider. Moreover, it can be beneficial to be with other folks who have personal insight of how you now see the world.

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Choosing an amputation level is not always easy. The surgeon helps an individual patient understand and balance a complex set of variables. The goal, however, is always successful healing, preserving as much function as possible, and creating a residual limb that will work best with a prosthesis. Working as a team, we must weigh the benefits of different procedures with the possible downsides and decide on the wisest course of treatment. 

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When poet Robert Browning penned those words, he did not have the amputee, or healthcare providers, specifically in mind. Yet, those words burn especially bright for individuals with limb loss and their physicians, nurses, and therapists. Together, they may transform what initially is a difficult and sometimes demoralizing situation into a process that leads to renewed hope and optimism for all involved.

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