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The Civil War Doctor Who Proved Phantom Limb Pain Is Real

Phantom limb pain is one of those mysterious sensational phenomena that seems impossible unless you've experienced the feeling firsthand, and it's something that people still try to dispute to this day.

But ask most amputees about phantom limb pain and they'll tell you- it's real and it's a really weird feeling that keeps doctors guessing about its origin and purpose.

And as weird as phantom limb pain seems today imagine how it was perceived when a Civil War doctor named Silas Weir Mitchell proved his patients were feeling pain in limbs that had already been amputated:

One of these surgeons, Silas Weir Mitchell, was drawn to cases of nerve injury that his colleagues rejected as impossible to treat. When his specialty ward in Philadelphia filled up, the Army Medical Department created a dedicated hospital for nervous disease. Soldiers flocked to the Turner’s Lane Hospital, seeking relief from pain that persisted after their wounds had healed. Mitchell described one man so “nervous and hysterical” from nerve damage that his family “supposed him to be partially insane.”

“The Case of George Dedlow” was based on Mitchell’s experience at Turner’s Lane. It reflected the testimony of countless amputee soldiers who all described the same sensation, the feeling that a missing arm or leg was still there, sometimes innocuous but sometimes agonizing. After publishing the Dedlow story anonymously, Mitchell turned his clinical material into articles for medical journals and books, including the influential Injuries of Nerves and Their Consequences in 1872. He built his career as “the father of modern American neurology” on the ghostly pain that lingered in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Mitchell did not discover the phenomenon that he named “phantom limb”—in previous centuries, surgeons regarded it as “worthy of wonder… almost incredible.” Then, as now, doctors would often ignore patients whose complaints had no apparent physical cause. How could there be violent cramping in a leg that did not exist? They were trained to look for objective evidence, and when no evidence turned up, they began to suspect duplicity. “Malingering,” the feigning of illness to avoid military service, was a bugaboo of Mitchell’s, but he believed that most patients at Turner’s Lane were not faking. Yet the possibility of “pain without lesion” challenged the basic premises of scientific medicine at the time.

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