Recovering after an amputation

After surgery, the body part that has been operated on will be bandaged to prevent swelling. You may be given morphine to relieve any pain you have. It is important to let your nurse know about any discomfort you may have. They can adjust your painkillers. Some people may have pain that feels like it’s coming from where the limb was amputated. This usually disappears over time.

After an amputation, most people can be fitted with an artificial limb. Measurements can be taken 4–6 weeks after surgery. This is done by a prosthetic rehabilitation service.

If you have treatment such as radiotherapy or chemotherapy after the amputation, the limb fitting may be postponed.

Artificial limbs are very effective and can help you to walk, run and play sport. Your physiotherapist or occupational therapist will teach you how to use your prosthesis.

You may need help to cope with the emotional and physical effects of the amputation. You may worry about other people’s reaction. It’s important to talk about your feelings and to do things in your own time.

After surgery

You probably won’t feel like eating or drinking much for the first few hours after your operation, so you’ll be given fluids into a vein in your hand or arm (an intravenous infusion). A nurse will take it out once you start eating and drinking again.

You may also have an oxygen mask on when you first wake up. Some people will have a tube in their bladder (catheter) to drain urine into a bag until they are up and moving around.

The part of your body that has been operated on will be covered with bandages or a plaster cast to control swelling. There will be a tube (drain) coming from your wound to drain off excess blood and fluids into a small container. This will usually be taken out after 3–4 days. You will also have stitches or staples to close the wound. These are usually taken out about 10–14 days after the operation.


You may have some discomfort for a few days after your operation. To start with, you may have morphine through an intravenous patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) pump, or you may have an epidural infusion. It’s important to let the nurses know if you’re still in pain so they can adjust your painkillers.

Phantom pain

After your surgery you may have pain that feels like it’s coming from the part of the limb that has been amputated. The pain often feels like a cramping, stabbing or burning sensation. It is a type of nerve pain known as phantom pain. You will have some medication at the time of surgery to reduce the risk of this happening. Most people find that phantom pain gets better with time and eventually goes away, but some people find that the pain can affect them long-term.

Other ways of managing phantom pain are acupuncture or graded motor imagery, which includes visualisation techniques and mirror therapy. You can talk to your physiotherapist or occupational therapist about these treatments.

Your doctor can advise you on the best painkillers to take if you have phantom pain. They include painkillers such as morphine, and other medications such as anti-depressants and anti-convulsants that work by reducing nerve pain.


A physiotherapist will visit you the day after your operation. They will show you how to do exercises to keep the muscles around the amputated limb strong and supple, making it easier to work an artificial limb.

The physiotherapist will encourage and help you to move around as soon as possible after the operation. If you’ve had an arm amputated, you will be able to get up and move around once your pain is controlled and you have recovered from the anaesthetic. If you’ve had a leg amputated, your physiotherapist will show you how to move around in bed and transfer to a chair. You’ll probably be moving around with crutches or in a wheelchair within a few days.

Once you’re moving around more, you will go to the hospital gym for physiotherapy. This is a very important part of your recovery. Your physiotherapist will give you different exercises to do as your wound heals and you gain strength.

Occupational therapy

You will see an occupational therapist soon after your operation. Their aim is to help you become as independent as possible in everyday activities. They may suggest different ways of doing things, or suggest aids or equipment you can use.

They will also work with you to increase your confidence using a wheelchair. If you’re likely to need one for a long time, they will refer you to your local NHS wheelchair service.

If you’ve had an arm amputated, your occupational therapist may teach you techniques to help reduce swelling. They can give you a scar-management treatment programme to start once your wound is fully healed. They will also teach you ways of doing some activities with one hand.

Going home

You’ll be able to go home once your wound has healed. If you need physiotherapy after you go home, the physiotherapist will make arrangements for you to have this. If you don’t live close to the hospital where you had your operation, you’ll be able to go to a physiotherapist nearer to you.

You may need some more help at home to support you with certain activities. This may be for a short period of time while you adjust, or for a longer time. Your physiotherapist and nurses will work with you to find out what you need and arrange support for you through social services.

Sometimes people need alterations made to their homes to make it safer for them to move around and to help them be more independent. The occupational therapist will work with social services to arrange these for you if they’re needed.

Artificial limb (prosthesis)

Following an amputation, most people are fitted with an artificial limb. Modern technology means that artificial limbs are now very effective, enabling people to walk, run and play sport. There are lower limbs adapted for walking, swimming, riding a bike and playing sports, and upper limbs adapted for driving, playing golf and swimming.

One of the team looking after you will discuss limb-fitting with you and explain what’s involved. They will refer you to a prosthetic rehabilitation service.

The earliest you can normally be measured for a prosthesis is about 4–6 weeks after your operation. This usually happens at a prosthetic rehabilitation unit, so you may have to travel to get to one. 1–2 weeks after this, you’ll attend again for a fitting of the prosthesis. If it’s a leg prosthesis, you’ll have physiotherapy to learn how to use it. If it’s an arm prosthesis, you’ll have occupational therapy to learn how to use it.

You will need to feel well enough to cope with prosthetic rehabilitation. If you have chemotherapy or radiotherapy after the amputation, limb-fitting and rehabilitation may need to be delayed.

The staff at the limb-fitting centre will be able to show you the different types of prosthesis and explain how they work. They will talk through your needs, and help you to choose the best types of prosthesis for your situation. For example, if you swim, you may want an additional prosthesis you can wear in water.

Your feelings and emotions

Losing a leg or an arm can feel like a bereavement. You’ll need time to grieve for your loss and to start to cope with the emotional and practical difficulties this type of surgery can bring. These are very strong emotions and you’ll need time and help to come to terms with them. The staff on the ward will know this and will help you as much as they can.

Either before or after your operation, you may find it helpful to talk to someone who has had an amputation. The doctor or nurses on your ward may be able to arrange this.

Body image

Even if you thought you had a good idea of what to expect before surgery, you may still feel shocked and distressed after the operation, when the full realisation of having lost an arm or leg hits you. You will be used to what your body looks like, and it can be very difficult to come to terms with a major change such as an amputation.

The sense of looking different from other people can affect your self-confidence. You may find it useful to read our section on body image and cancer.

Family and friends

Your partner, family and friends may also find it hard to come to terms with their feelings about your amputation. You may be anxious about what they will say or think, and whether you will be able to cope with their reactions. This worry can feel very real, but most people find their families and friends want to do as much as possible to support them. It can help to be open about your feelings and any fears about people’s reactions.

Our section on talking about your cancer can help you find ways of talking to family and friends.

Other people’s reactions

As you become more used to the way you look, you will become more confident about dealing with the reactions of people you don’t know as well. Some people find it helpful to get out and about as soon as possible after the operation, while others may take longer. It’s important to do things in your own time. You may want to take someone with you at first to offer support. You may find that other people don’t even notice your amputation, especially if you’re wearing an artificial limb.

Back to Amputation

Preparing for an amputation

Sometimes, if the cancer has spread, the affected limb is amputated. You will have counseling and support before and after surgery.