Editor’s Note: We are not encouraging our readers to go out and get some LSD to treat phantom limb pain. This article aims to raise awareness of past and recent research regarding the clinical application of psychedelic medicines.
As psilocybin has been legalized for therapeutic use in states like Oregon and Colorado, as well as cities like Washington DC and Oakland, will fellow hallucinogen lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) soon have its medical-marijuana moment? Decades ago, it was theorized and tested that LSD could alleviate suffering from phantom limb pain.
Before the bohemian subculture of the 1960s gave them a bad rap, psilocybin and LSD were widely viewed as possible solutions to a range of physical and mental health problems.
In 1962, five doctors from the Japanese Society of Psychology and Neurology studied the medicinal benefits of LSD. Their findings are published in a study titled “Effect of LSD25 on the Phantom Limb: The Problem of Body Scheme and the Therapeutic Use of LSD25 Phantom Pain.”
Then in 1967, the same five Japanese doctors wrote an article in an issue of The Lancet, which was the UK’s answer to the New England Journal of Medicine. The report, titled “The Effect of LSD on the Phantom Limb Phenomenon,” discussed recent study findings. In the paper, researchers shared that five out of six study participants with phantom limb pain and seven out of eight subjects with phantom limb sensation “benefited from a dose of 50 micrograms” of LSD. Because of these findings, the researchers concluded that “LSD should be regarded as a useful drug in the treatment of phantom limb phenomena.”
5 out of 6 study participants with phantom limb pain and 7 out of 8 subjects with phantom limb sensation benefited from a dose of 50-mcg of LSD.
Why LSD is believed to work
In the early 20th century, the widely accepted theory regarding the relationship between our brains and bodies was that the brain constantly builds 3D models of our bodies within corresponding 3D models of the environment.
Although heavily dependent on touch and sight, this consistent 3D-mapping activity is said to integrate inputs from numerous neurological centers. Since LSD radically modifies modes of self-awareness and spatial perception, the researchers hypothesized that it might shake the brain out of dysfunctional patterns of model-building, a.k.a. the cause of phantom limb pain and phantom limb sensation.
Since LSD radically modified modes of self-awareness and spatial perception, the researchers hypothesized that it might shake the brain out of dysfunctional patterns of model-building, a.k.a. the cause of phantom limb pain and phantom limb sensation.
Only one study participant felt no change in phantom limb perception during the study. Everyone else reported a significant difference, and their experiences followed a similar pattern:
First, they perceived the phantom limb to be elongated. Within a few hours after receiving their 50-mcg LSD, the residual limb began to feel lighter; an itching sensation replaced the phantom pain. By the third hour, subjects said that the intensity of the phantom limb pain significantly decreased, and the phantom limb was perceived to be shorter.
Eventually, the participants reported a total absence of phantom limb sensation. The 3D models of their bodies finally aligned with reality.
According to the researchers, LSD helped the subjects reduce phantom limb pain and sensation by changing their body image, destroying the psychological framework, which was the root of the phantom limb sensation.
That same premise lies at the heart of current research into psychedelic phantom limb pain cures, which has emerged from being shelved for 50 years.
In 2018, researchers studied the effect of combining mirror therapy with psilocybin. The subject, Albert Lin, found that a single session with psilocybin helped end months of debilitating phantom limb pain. Although researchers are still unsure why psilocybin works, they go back to the old theory of how the brain integrates inputs from different neurological centers.
Seeing how promising the recent study on psilocybin was, it won’t be the last we’ll hear about hallucinogens and its effect on phantom limb pain.