Chronic peripheral nerve pain can ruin your life. The unremitting agony can replace all thought. Though I haven’t suffered it I have witnessed it at close hand.
My sister, in common with many people who suffer long-term pain, sustained a nerve injury after a car accident that damaged the nerve to one of her arms.
She was in Ghana and she was flown back to the UK, to the hospital where I was working so she could be cared for by a great neurologist there.
It was a long and traumatic journey to recovery, all manner of treatments tried, discarded and new ones sought.
If only a cutting edge op had been available to her then. The kind of op that’s showing promise today. It’s a simple one-hour operation and could have changed her life.
The surgery repairs nerves or replaces them with transplanted ones after they’ve been damaged by stretching, crushing, compression or, in the most serious cases, ripped apart or torn away from their anchorage to the spinal cord.
Mr Marco Sinisi, a consultant neurosurgeon at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital and the Wellington Hospital in London, who operates on damaged peripheral nerves, says: “This operation can relieve pressure on the peripheral nerve and restore movement and sensation – the pain can disappear like magic within a couple of weeks and function returns.”
“But there is still too little awareness of peripheral nerve repair and transfer surgery, even among medical professionals.
Most nerves have two components – a sensory element that carries sensations to the brain of hot and cold, rough and smooth and also pain.
Damage to a nerve can therefore result in severe pain, burning, stabbing or shooting pain, numbness and tingling and loss of sensation. The condition affects almost 1.5 million people in the UK, and if left untreated, the damage can be irreversible.
The second element in a nerve is the “motor” component which relays messages to the brain about movement, and instructions from the brain to muscles commanding them to move. Damage to a nerve, therefore, can result in muscle weakness, stiffness, and even paralysis.
Where a nerve is severed completely, the limb is paralysed because the nerve can no longer transmit messages to and from the brain and is numb.
Operations to plump up, repair or replace nerves are highly complex procedures, and available only at a handful of specialist NHS centres such as the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, Greater London.
Both patients and doctors should be aware that simple nerve repairs pioneered by Mr Sinisi offer great hope to people who are living with the results of nerve damage.