Arm problems explained...finally!

For those who don't know, last year (early October 2005) I woke up one morning with a practically useless left arm. It was numb in part, ached in others, was weak all over and I had a shooting pain in my shoulders and upper back. I thought I'd just slept in a weird position and it would settle down in a day or two. I was wrong. So after two weeks of no improvement, I went off to see my doctor. A few simple mechanical tests were done and decision made to get a CT scan of my cervical spine done. Now CT scans are good, but in this case only showed the bone structure and alignment were fine. There wasn't a lot to see with regard the soft tissue so the results weren't conclusive. So the next step was a referral to the neurologist.

Now this is where the story will take a slight diversion into "why the hell does this happen in Australia" land. Natalie and I are on top level health insurance, paid for by us (not something our employers provide). We fork out large sums of money every year for the privilege and have never had the need to make any significant or ongoing claims. Once every 2-3 years we buy new glasses and a few claims in between, but, by and large, the health fund loves us - we bank roll everyone else apparently! So here I am, in varying degrees of constant discomfort for almost 4 months and not one cent available from the health insurance to cover the costs of what followed! Goes to show, the Australian health system may be one of the best in the world, but it's still going to hell in a hand basket!!

I digress. After a 3 month wait to see the neurologist he assesses me in his rooms then sends me off for an MRI, a nerve conduction study and the full arsenal of blood tests. Now the MRI was pretty simple, show up, remove metal objects, lay down with some foam ear plugs and go to sleep for half an hour - bliss! I'd never had an MRI before and I was surprised by just how damn noisy those things are. When I was issued with the ear plugs, I was thinking "this never happens on "House MD"! Being half deaf makes it easier for me, which I'm guessing made it possible for me to sleep.

The nerve conduction study was a little... (what's the word?)...uncomfortable. I remember as a kid playing dare with the other farm kids about who was going to touch the electric fence first to see if it was on. Sometimes you'd get a tingle, sometimes it would make you jump, and if the bull was in the paddock, it would knock you fair on your arse! Let's call that the "James Zapometer Scale" (having felt 240VAC across my chest I think I'm in a good position to assess this). Well the nerve conduction tests sat somewhere in the the middle of that scale. However, unlike the electric fence, this time you're hooked up to bloody thing and can't let go. It was uncomfortable, but bearable - I figured it couldn't be any worse than the last four months with a useless left arm, so I grit my teeth.

Blood tests are blood tests. They stab you, they bleed you, they put a band-aid on you and now that I have facial hair, I no longer get a lollipop! Dammit.

Well last week I got the results. I have two torn discs in the lower cervical spine (C5 and C6 for the curious). That in itself is pretty significant, but on its own doesn't explain the arm problem. So reading on through the MRI report the riddle is solved: the lower tear is swollen and putting pressure on the Brachial Plexus specifically affecting the Median nerve. Long story short: I've buggered my neck which has stuffed a nerve or two in my arm.

Despite the serious sounding nature of this injury, the neurologist seems to think some targeted physiotherapy should make a world of difference - here's hoping. Either way I'm just glad the tests ruled out all the other sinister possibilities I've been worrying about (such as Multiple Sclerosis, tumours, spinal cysts, and nasty nerve- eating viruses!). On balance this is probably a good outcome.

The impact on my life will (should) be temporary lasting a few more months...hopefully. With some physiotherapy I'm hoping to be back skiing next season but I'll play that by ear. In the meantime, I just have to look after my neck and try not to slack off with the treatment!

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