Tuesday, December 29, 2015

having new things to think about

Here’s one of those thoughts that I hadn’t had. Sure, I’d heard of phantom limb pain, wherein an amputated arm seems to the amputee still to be there, at least insofar as it hurts. It follows that, if a man has had his penis amputated, then he would not be immune from the pains of other amputees. 

[There are] cases of men whose penile cancer forced them to have their genitals removed. In one study, 60 percent of these men experienced feelings of pain where their genitals used to be, similar to those who have lost a limb. In elective male-to-female sex reassignment surgery, however, where the genitals are removed and refashioned into a vagina and clitoris, there have been no reported cases of ‘phantom penis’ syndrome.

The brain houses a version of the body onto which it maps signals received from the body. If expected signals are missing, the brain can read the absence as a problem and problems are often described as pain. A recent, successful treatment for phantom hand pain involves tricking the brain with mirrors. Show the amputee the existing hand mirrored, making it seem as though the missing hand was as normal as the existing hand and the brain accepts the mirror hand as real, at least long enough to figure out that there isn’t a problem, and the missing signals are dismissed as a non-issue. The pain goes away.

My admittedly incomplete consideration of sex reassignment surgery had not included thoughts of phantom pain from the missing penis. Perhaps the MTF’s brain somehow never mapped the penis as penis anyway? Perhaps the new clitoris and vagina send signals to the brain that are similar enough to the old penis signals that the brain can accept the new arrangement without confusion? Perhaps no MTF wants to admit to phantom penis pain?   

Well, there you are. I have now thought about phantom penis pain in the context of sex reassignment surgery. Which I hadn’t before. 

source: Becoming Nicole: the transformation of an American family by Amy Ellis Nutt

2015. Random House, NY

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