Objective: Relationships between the vestibular system and the body schema have been suggested but never demonstrated in amputees. We studied the effects of vestibular stimulation on body representation in amputees focusing on the phantom limb phenomenon.
Method: Prospective study in 31 amputated subjects of one or several limbs before the age of 16 years. The amputees underwent a caloric vestibular stimulation test, ipsilateral (n = 31) and contralateral (n = 8) to the side of amputation. Amputees were asked to report their perceptions spontaneously and to answer open questions. Four types of perceptions were analyzed: normal phantom, deformed phantom, painful phantom, and no phantom, before, during, and after the vestibular stimulation test. Data were compared between the two groups for pre-and post-test perceptions (χ 2 test).
Results: Vestibular caloric stimulation provoked temporary perception of a normal phantom limb in 16 of 17 amputees who previously did not experience phantoms. For 12 of 12 amputees who currently experienced deformed or painful phantom limbs, caloric stimulation led to temporary replacement of the abnormal phantom with a non-painful normal phantom.
Conclusions: The phenomena observed: 1) throw light on assumed mechanisms controlling construction of static and dynamic engrams used to produce the body schema; 2) complete the neuromatrix theory proposed to explain the phantom limb phenomenon; and 3) suggest that the vestibular system triggers the procedure of reconstruction of the global body schema.