THE LEG I DIDN’T HAVE JUST KEPT ON HURTING
by M. Ron Eslingner, RN, CRNA, APN, MA, BCH, CI
“I don’t know how this works, but it does.” Those were the words of Bill twelve weeks after his first visit to Healthy Visions Wellness Center where hypnosis was used to teach Bill how to control his Phantom Limb Pain. Prior to this, Bill was taking pain medicine two to three times a week. Sometimes the pain was so unbearable that he went to the emergency room for intravenous pain medication.
On a beautiful fall day fifteen years ago Bill went deer hunting at a favorite spot in the mountains near Huntsville, Tennessee. As he reached the area where he would set up his deer stand he was taken down by a severe deep cramping and burning pain in his right leg. A pain so severe that it brought tears to his eyes and a scream of agony from deep inside.
A pain so intense that he was unable to walk or even stand. He was down and lying on his back with the only way down the mountain was to use his rifle and good left leg to push himself inch by inch. Moving only a few inches with each desperately painful push for what seemed an eternity. “I pushed with my rifle just like I learned to do in the army when crawling under machine gun fire,” Bill said. 	”Of course crawling under that machine gun fire and concertina wire wasn’t nothing compared coming down that mountain thinking I was dying of pain.” The pain was unrelenting and after what seemed to be a life time he finally reached where he had parked his truck. Once there, he could neither stand nor pull himself up into the truck. “With nothing else left to do in agony I spread my orange hunting jacket out were it could be seen from the sky and crawled under my truck to….”
Bill and a friend had discussed that they would both be hunting in the same area of the mountain on the same day. Luckily around lunch time Bill’s friend decided to hike over to where he knew Bill usually parked to have lunch with him. A chill of dread went down his spine when he saw Bill under the truck delirious with pain. He quickly dragged Bill from under the truck and struggled to get him inside. He drove as quickly as he could to Huntsville Hospital where Life Star transported Bill to University Medical Center. Bill is alive today because of his friend.
Bill had a Popetiel Artery Aneurysm, which ruptured and created a blood clot that stopped the flow of blood to Bill’s leg. His leg was amputated just above the knee that day , but gangrene set in and two days later a second amputation was done that included his hip joint.
For fifteen years following the surgery Bill continued to have frequent and often severe pain in his amputated leg, until one day a friend handed him a business card from Healthy Visions Wellness Center and suggested he call. Since his initial visit on March 2, 2005 he has been pain free.
Why and how does this work? No one really knows, but when we do something that creates pain such as a burn or a cut the pain is sent by an electrical signal to the brain. There is no pain until this signal gets to the brain. Stop the signal and you stop the pain. A local anesthetic is a good example. The body has the ability to create its on anesthetic and for Bill and many other amputees the memory of their pain persist and the subconscious mind can not tell the difference from a memory and the real thing. However, when we change the memory or the thought we change the brains response.
One way to experience this is to imagine or pretend you are eating a lemon. For most people that tart, tangy and sometimes pain in the jaw occurs as if a lemon is actually being eaten. That is because the memory or the thought of the lemon to the subconscious mind is real so it responds as it would to the actual eating of the lemon. It creates the same biochemical, physiological response as if the lemon was actually eaten. So, change the thought and you change the response.
This worked with Bill by teaching him how to think back to a time and remember how the leg felt before the trauma and amputation. The subconscious mind does not know the difference between what is real and what is imagined, which in Bill’s case by changing a thought and uncovering a past memory he was able to change pain into comfort.
Bill was also instructed to imagine a switch between the amputated leg and the brain. Since there is no pain until the message gets to the brain he was able to switch off the pain signal keeping it from reaching the brain. He was also taught many other techniques to stop the possibility of future pain, including pretending that he had a TV remote control that he could use to turn the pain up or down. He could hit the mute button or simply hit the off button to stop the pain. He also used the remote to let him travel into the future to see himself doing the things he likes to do and doing them comfortably.
When Bill went to the doctor he was ask, “what is your pain on a scale of 0-10.” From the first session at Healthy Visions Wellness Center he was taught how to think of his pain scale as his comfort scale. He was seen five times prior to the writing of this article during which he learned self-hypnosis, guided imagery and creative visualization to manage his stress, his comfort and his quality of life. Because all hypnosis is self-hypnosis he easily learned how to control his pain and not let it control him.
I am always astounded, as I was with Bill, at how hypnosis can make such major changes in peoples lives. I saw it happen so often while on active duty with the Navy especially as staff member at the Navy Medical Center Portsmouth Virginia Pain Management Center. While there I had the opportunity to work with many amputees and other types of pain. I watched people who had pain for 2 years, 10 years and even as long as 15 years either become totally pain free, as in the case of Bill, or to just decrease the pain to a level that allowed them to lead functional and productive lives.