Ouch! my phantom leg jumps/hurts when you stab "my" virtual hand

Melita J. Giummarra, Bernadette M. Fitzgibbon, Nellie Georgiou-Karistianis, Michael E.R. Nicholls, Stephen J. Gibson, John L. Bradshaw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


Pain synaesthetes experience pain in a presensitised region when observing or imagining another person in pain. We conducted an upper-limb embodiment study using a modified rubber-hand illusion in which lower-limb amputees originally participated as control subjects for the upper-limb amputees. While we found all subjects experienced topographic illusory sensations, we also serendipitously found that lower-limb amputee pain synaesthetes experienced pain or a motor response in their phantom leg when the embodied hand was threatened (eg with a retractable knife, mousetrap, or syringe) or submitted to high-frequency stimulation (eg vibration). Embodiment illusions were brought about by touching, manipulating, or threatening a rubber or real hand which was observed through a mirror so that it was superimposed upon the target hand (phantom hand for upper-limb amputees, or real hand in others). Participants included eight pain synaesthetes (six lower-limb amputees, one upper-limb amputee, and one nonamputee), and thirty-one controls (eight lower-limb amputees, twelve upper-limb amputees, and eleven non-amputees). We documented participant's subjective reports, together with quantitative measures including the Questionnaire Measure of Emotional Empathy. We found no association between pain synaesthesia and empathy scores. On the basis of related literature we suggest that pain synaesthetes likely experienced phantom-leg pain because (a) the motor system was already engaged during visual capture; (b) threatening stimuli, to which they are hyper-vigilant, triggered avoidance or escape' motor schemata; and (c) there could be no feedback confirming that initiated motor schemata for the phantom limb were successfully performed. Ultimately, we have further defined this new condition, synaesthesia for pain, as not only having a sensory pain component, but also a key motor component, manifesting itself in avoidance, contraction, and withdrawal 'actions'.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1396-1407
Number of pages12
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes


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