Sometimes, they make the discovery in the most shocking of ways; Phantom Limb Pain, a real phenomenon where due to issues with nerve endings, people who have lost limbs will feel pain from limbs that are no longer there. One hypothesis for Phantom Limb Pain is that the section of the brain that controlled the missing limb is still there, and while there is no longer any input from the missing limb, that section is still active, which sometimes causes both Phantom Limb Pain and Phantom Limb, which is where an amputee feels a missing limb is still attached. The vast majority of amputees do experience Phantom Limb, with Phantom Limb Pain being less common.
In fiction, this can be played in two distinct ways:
- Often it is used to allow the patient to discover their missing appendage in the most shocking, unavoidable way (contrast I Can't Feel My Legs!).
- The person is well and long aware of the missing limb, but still has the phantom pains to remind them of what they've lost.
While, as noted, the occurrence of Phantom Limb Pain amongst amputees is generally low, fiction plays it up for Rule of Drama.
- In Fullmetal Alchemist, Ed's amputations are shown to be physically excruciating despite the auto mail.
- The Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex episode "Idolator" begins with an investigator monitoring the appearance of Marcello Jarti and identifying key character tics to confirm if it's the real person or an impersonator. Jarti's unconscious habit of scratching at his prosthetic arm is identified as a symptom of Phantom Limb Syndrome.
- Justice League: Cry for Justice: Roy Harper has his arm cut off by the villain Prometheus. Although he gets a cybernetic arm in Rise of Arsenal, he still suffers phantom pain. This combined with his daughter's death results in him relapsing into drug addiction.
- Inter Nos: Natsuki has been gravely injured in combat, and lost one of her legs. She is initially delirious and blissfully unaware, until the fever breaks and she wakes one night with an itch in her (missing) left foot. She goes to scratch, and finds nothing there. She lifts the sheets. Her scream rouses everyone nearby from slumber.
- Frozen (2013): Inverted and played for laughs. After a fall off of a cliff, Olaf worriedly states that he cannot feel his legs. Kristoff helpfully points out that they're his legs.
- Luca: Sea monsters turn into humans and their tail disappears when dry. The first time he transforms, Luca says he can still feel his tail, but Alberto tells him it's just phantom tail and he'll get used to it.
- John Dies at the End: Amy has phantom limb syndrome after losing a hand, still feeling like her limb is still there. Her phantom limb allows her to turn a phantom doorknob that cannot be seen, let alone touched by a normal hand.
- The Beguiled: Clint Eastwood's character loses a leg after a fall (push) down the stairs. He doesn't believe the women who tell him this, initially, because of the phantom pains.
- Cerberus High: Another Story: Eden experiences pain where his left arm would've been when he wakes up in Elysium. He uses this phantom pain to prove to Rouge that even though he is in Elysium, he is far from dead and can still fight.
- Lethal White: Private detective Cormoran Strike, who's been having trouble sleeping, remembers the last time he couldn't sleep at night. It was after he lost a leg to an IED in Afghanistan, and spent nights immediately afterward in the hospital, feeling an itch on his phantom foot.
- Logan's Run: In Logan's World, a sequel to the original novel, Logan meets with an informant while trying to track down the people who kidnapped his wife. The informant is missing both legs, and loudly complaints to Logan about how he can still feel pain in his missing left leg, but feels nothing from his right leg.
- In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab complains about he still feels pain in the leg that got bitten off by the titular whale. This serves to intensify his rage at the whale and drive him towards a mad attempt at revenge.
- In the novelization of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker feels pain in his mechanical arm after he and Obi-Wan Kenobi board the Invisible Hand. Obi-Wan asks him when he got it fitted with pain sensors, but he replies that he didn't. Obi-Wan tells him that the pain is in his mind, but Anakin is convinced that it's a sign that Count Dooku / Darth Tyranus, the man who cut off his real arm, is aboard the vessel. Whether or not he's right, Dooku is aboard.
- Babylon 5: G'Kar has his eye itching, specifically the one that was removed when he was imprisoned by the Centauri. The doctor mentions that it's a type of phantom limb pain, and he's able to give an artificial eye as a replacement.
- Battlestar Galactica (2003): During the finale season Felix Gaeta has to have his right leg amputated below the knee after he gets shot, and delayed treatment leg to the wound getting infected. Afterwards he complains about the leg itching against the ill-fitting prosthetic he's given. Tragically he notices the itching has finally stopped just before he's executed by firing squad for leading The Mutiny against Adama.
- Carnival Row: During war in Tirnanoc a Fae soldier that lost his leg complains about feeling it. Philo comforts him by saying that it's normal. Later we find out that Philo's wings were cut off when he was a child so that he could pass for a full blood human. Even though it happened when he was a babe he sometimes feels them.
- Criminal Minds:
- In one episode, Hotch is interviewing a bombing victim in the hospital. At the end, he complains of pain in his leg, and the camera pans down to reveal his leg's been amputated. (His other leg is still intact, but the framing implies that he's complaining about his missing leg.)
- Discussed in another episode. The unsub believes he has cockroaches living in his arm that cause a constant itching sensation, and his POV shows them crawling around under his skin. Rossi is able to talk him down by using his phone camera as a "mirror" to show that there's nothing in his arm, which makes the sensation go away. Reid cites it as a common treatment for phantom limb sufferers that just so happened to apply in this situation.
- Game of Thrones: Discussed in the episode "Mhysa". Ramsay trolls Theon whom he recently castrated with this: "People talk about phantom limbs, an amputee might have an itch where his foot used to be. So I've always wondered, do eunuchs have a phantom cock? Next time you think about naked girls, will you feel an itch?"
- Grey's Anatomy: Dr. Arizona Robbins suffers an amputation after a plane crash. The phantom pains she experiences are so bad that at one point, she asks a fellow doctor to stab her in the prosthetic foot in order to alleviate the pain.
- House: Wilson's downstairs neighbor still suffers phantom pains from losing his arm during peacekeeping activities in Vietnam. House successfully treats him after initially alienating him by questioning his veteran status.
- M*A*S*H: One episode has a former football player take a serious injury to his leg. He tells Hawkeye that, if he can't save the leg, the doctor likewise shouldn't save him. He wakes, and initially believes he still has his leg, due to the phantom pains. Then he is made to realize it's gone. He becomes suicidal, until Radar gently reminds him of all the times, as a player for Iowa's football team, he'd overcome the odds.
- Psi Factor has a segment, aptly titled "Phantom Limb", in which a man loses an arm in an accident. Not only does he suffer from the pain of phantom limb, but he eventually has a psychic response, able to use a telekinetic force much like his missing limb, even rescuing his grandson from falling with the phantom appendage.
- In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Nog is injured in battle and loses his leg. He comes back two episodes later with a replacement leg that he says hurts, even though there's nothing wrong with it. It's a side effect of his PTSD.
- Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain gets its subtitle from this phenomenon. Appropriately, one of the plot points is Venom Snake dealing with the loss of his arm after the events of Ground Zeroes, including such pains (as well as getting used to a prosthetic). Kazuhira Miller has also lost a couple of limbs by the time you encounter him in the game, and gets a speech at the end of the game's first mission to help drive the point home.
Kaz: Why are we still here? Just to suffer? Every night, I can feel my leg... and my arm... even my fingers. The body I've lost... the comrades I've lost... won't stop hurting... It's like they're all still there. You feel it, too, don't you? I'm gonna make them give back our past.
- In Grim Fandango, near the end of Year 1, Manny meets an old sea dog who wears an eye patch. When asked why he wears one (all the souls in the afterlife appear as skeletons), he admits it's mostly from phantom pains from when he was alive.
- Emi Ibarazaki from Katawa Shoujo, who has lost both legs below the knee in a car accident, specifically refers to phantom pains as being one of the problems she had to deal with that aren't so immediately apparent, in an attempt to convince the main character that he can't possibly understand her circumstances and should stop trying to help her.
- An online, two-sentence Creepypasta story has the narrator talk about the phantom pain he feels in his lost arm. Then he feels something tugging on the phantom limb.
- The Simpsons: In "See Homer Run", Homer dresses as a mascot called the "Safety Salamander", and is somehow able to manipulate the tail. At the end, Homer says that he can still feel it despite not wearing the suit anymore.
- An episode of the Cow and Chicken segment I Am Weasel has I.R. Baboon possessing a phantom foot, despite not losing any limbs. The Red Guy is shown to be an expert of this trope, but Weasel reveals he is committing Insurance Fraud by injuring phantom limbs to make money.
- This happens to Panthro in ThunderCats (2011) after he loses both of his arms.
Panthro: The worst is when they itch. There's nothing to scratch at, or with.