Tab tries: Living with nine fingers


| UPDATED amputation charlie dowell finger phantom pinky

A year and a half ago I had my finger amputated and as a result gained a phantom.

Whenever I have a conversation with someone about it the question of how does it feel nearly always arises. Every time, I struggle to adequately describe the true sensation of what it is. You could say it is like trying to explain colour to someone born blind. How it is to have something attached, but not or have the ghostly presence of piece of you that was, are all feelings that have to be experienced rather than described.

My promising career as a hand model gone in one fell swoop.

Despite this I thought in my first column piece I would give it a go and try, in as much detail as possible, to describe what it is like to have a phantom finger, partly so I have it on paper to refer to in conversations and partly for your own morbid curiosity.

So here goes.

When I first had my finger removed the phantom was bloody difficult to ignore. Underneath my bandages, what I thought was my finger felt shorter and curled into a ball extremely tight, so tight that my fingertip was inside my palm.

This rather disconcerting position was also combined with an ache, like being stuck in a vice and the pressure slowly increased until it was almost painful. Luckily the opiates I had reduced this sensation (along with other pleasurable side effects) and as my hand recovered, the feeling in my finger changed to something more bearable. However, in the days following my operation my hand felt extremely uncomfortable. Lord knows what it is like to lose a whole limb.

Still high on morphine

Today my finger is no longer curled up and can produce quite a sophisticated set of perceptions, some of which are more pleasant than others. Most of the time, when I am doing a mundane task like making tea or scanning plant flower stems in the lab, I barely notice it. If I do it is as if someone is exerting a slight pressure all along my digit, just like when a baby grabs the whole of your finger but a little tighter.

But if I am doing something that requires a greater force to be exerted on my palm, let’s say pouring a full teapot or grasping the handlebars of my bike, the feeling transmutes into something a little stronger. Instead of a gripping pressure I have bolt like pins and needles mixed with a muscular ache coming from the inside, almost as if my finger is a bare bone with this sensation running from tip to base. It sounds unpleasant, and was at first, but now I gain perverse enjoyment from squeezing my palm and having it run up and down my phantom.

I have friends whose dogs love the shock from their electric collars. I sympathise.

Electric shocks: like crack to a canine.

Sometimes I can move my phantom pinky about a centimetre or so but with some effort. As it flexes I get the same electric feeling as when I squeeze my palm, but it is blurred, as if when the finger moves it leaves a trail behind; a comet and its tail.

This feeling I still haven’t got used to; having something move and knowing it isn’t happening, is a sensation I think I’ll never get over. Unfortunately it is quite a common feeling day to day, as my brain often thinks my phantom is moving when my other fingers flex. This is hardly surprising if you think about how difficult it is to keep one finger still while moving its neighbours.

On rare occasions I can, usually completely out of the blue, get exquisite pain: imagine a large pulsating electric shock hitting the whole length of your finger. I am lucky that this doesn’t happen very often as it can be debilitating for some amputees. Indeed learning about phantom limbs in neuroscience last year, I was told about people who had near constant pain and were completely disabled by it.

Having my finger amputated has given me a new sense of respect to people, who have had whole limbs removed. My piddly little operation has produced a strange spectrum of pain, squeezing, electric shocks and ghostly tingling. Imagine what it is like for those who lose a whole arm or leg.

Every sinew of your forearm, every finger contorted in spark like pain.

Now when I watch the Paralympics I’ll think of what the runners are feeling in their phantom leg, rather than who is going to win.