Recovering from an amputation

Recovery from an amputation begins after your surgery and will continue at home.

Rehabilitation

Physical rehabilitation is an important part of the recovery process. After rehabilitation, you should be able to return to work and other activities.

Your rehabilitation programme will usually start a few days after surgery. You’ll work closely with physiotherapists and occupational therapists. They’ll tailor your rehabilitation to your individual needs and requirements.

What rehabilitation involves

Physical rehabilitation usually begins with simple exercises you can do whilst sitting or lying down.

If you’ve had a leg amputation, you’ll be:

  • encouraged to move around as soon as possible using a wheelchair
  • taught ‘transfer techniques’, including how to get into a wheelchair from your bed

A physiotherapist may work with you in a hospital gym once your wound has started to heal. They’ll plan an exercise programme for you to maintain mobility and muscle strength.

If you have a prosthetic limb fitted, your physiotherapist will teach you how to use it. For example, how to walk on a prosthetic leg or grip with a prosthetic hand.

Stump pain

Many people who have an amputation experience stump pain.

Stump pain can have many different causes, including:

  • rubbing or sores where the stump touches a prosthetic limb
  • nerve damage during surgery
  • the development of neuromas – a growth of nerve cells after injury

Stump care

Do

  • keep the skin on the surface of your stump clean to reduce the risk of irritation or infection
  • wash your stump gently at least once a day with mild unscented soap and warm water
  • dry your stump carefully after washing
  • wash your stump more often in hot weather
  • clean the socket regularly using soap and warm water if you have a prosthetic limb
  • avoid leaving your stump in water for long periods – it’ll soften the skin and make it more vulnerable to injury
  • use a moisturising cream before bedtime
  • use a moisturiser when you’re not wearing your prosthesis if your skin becomes dry
  • try wearing socks around the stump to absorb sweat and reduce skin irritation

Speak to a healthcare professional if your stump develops signs of infection like:

  • warm, red and tender skin
  • discharge of fluid or pus
  • increasing swelling

You should check your stump every day for signs of infection.

‘Phantom limb’ pain

‘Phantom limb’ sensations are sensations that seem to come from the amputated limb. They can sometimes be painful which is known as ‘phantom limb’ pain.

The term ‘phantom’ doesn’t mean the painful symptoms are imaginary. ‘Phantom limb’ pain is real and has been confirmed using brain scans.

The symptoms of phantom limb pain can range from mild to severe. They can feel like a brief flash of mild pain or a constant severe pain.

Treating stump and phantom limb pain

Stump and phantom limb pain will usually improve over time. But, treatments are available to help relieve the symptoms.

Medications

Medications that may be used to help relieve pain include:

Self-help measures

Do

  • check the fit of your prosthesis
  • make adjustments to your prosthesis to make it feel more comfortable
  • apply heat or cold to your limb, including heat or ice packs, rubs and creams
  • try massage – to increase circulation and stimulate muscles
  • try acupuncture – this is thought to stimulate the nervous system and relieve pain

Complementary therapy

There are several non-invasive techniques that may help relieve pain in some people. These include:

  • transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) – where electrical impulses block or reduce pain signals
  • mental imagery – imagine using your phantom limb, like stretching the fingers
  • mirror visual feedback – use a mirror to create a reflection as you exercise the other limb

Psychological impact of amputation

Losing a limb can have a significant psychological impact. Coping with the psychological impact is therefore as important as your physical recovery.

Common negative emotions

Common negative emotions and thoughts experienced by people after an amputation include:

Why amputation can have a psychological impact

Having an amputation can have a considerable psychological impact because:

  • you have to cope with the loss of sensation from your amputated limb
  • you have to cope with the loss of function from your amputated limb
  • your sense of body image, and other people’s perception of your body image, has changed
  • if you have an emergency amputation, you don’t have time to mentally prepare for the effect of surgery

Speak to a healthcare professional if your mental health is affected by your amputation.

Additional treatment can be arranged to help you cope after amputation. This includes antidepressants or counselling.

Caring for your remaining limb

It’s important to try and avoid injuring your remaining limb after an amputation.

If you’re leg or foot has been amputated, you should:

  • avoid wearing poorly fitting shoes
  • speak to a podiatrist
  • get regular reviews of your foot from the foot care team

Last updated:
13 April 2023