Xenomelia, or foreign limb syndrome, is a condition where an otherwise healthy person has the dysphoric feeling that one of their limbs does not belong to them.
This condition is also characterised by the intense desire to amputate the healthy limb. I’m sure many of us sometimes stare at ourselves in the mirror wishing that the scar above our right eye would disappear or our nose looked more like the “girl next door’s”. Now imagine being completely healthy and feeling the powerful urge to amputate your leg just because you don’t like it. Six questionnaire studies found that people with xenomelia had the following to say:
“I can feel exactly the line where my leg should end and my stump should begin.”
“I feel myself complete without my leg.”
“My soul feels as though it belongs to a body with only one leg. The body does not correspond to this inner reality.”
“I feel the stump ends in my thighs; I have a strong desire to live with two thigh stumps.”
It sounds absolutely absurd and I’m sure any amputee who has lost a limb through trauma or illness would almost be offended by someone who would want to voluntarily amputate a limb because they actually want to be an amputee. The truth is, xenomelia is a devastating condition that has even led to suicide, or self-harm and self-amputation, with disturbing consequences that include severe scarring, infection and sepsis. Some sufferers even go as far as faking amputation by hiding the limb in private and public. It seems the feelings of shame and disgust about the limb are just so overwhelming that they feel amputation is their only solution.
As an obvious psychological problem with a whole array of ethical issues, amputating the unwanted limb voluntarily through surgery is a controversial act and it would almost be impossible to find a surgeon who would perform the procedure.
Interestingly, these patients mostly want their left leg amputated – a fact that indicates that the right-brain hemisphere that supports a bilateral representation of the body is at fault and that early childhood memories are in most cases contributing factors.
Heinrich Grimsehl is a prosthetist in private practice and a member of the South African Orthotic and Prosthetic Association (SAOPA). email: firstname.lastname@example.org