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The Janice MacArthur story
The Janice MacArthur story
The Janice MacArthur story
The Janice MacArthur story
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The Janice MacArthur story

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  • 1. My Journey with Trigeminal Neuralgia by Janice MacArthur It was June 2008 and what had started as a dull ache in the right side of my mouth, finally forced me to visit my dentist. I had toothache (or so I thought). My dentist duly examined my teeth and a miniscule hairline crack was seen under X-ray. The procedure of root canal treatment was commenced and continued for a period of seven months. However, despite this, I had no respite from pain. In fact, the level of pain increased and continued even though I had been 'numbed up' on many occasions. My dentist, by this point, suspected Trigeminal Neuralgia although she had never come across anyone with it before and reckoned that, at 43 years old, I was 'too young'. She hoped that for my sake it was not Trigeminal Neuralgia and so, the term was not used again. However, she did refer me to a mouth specialist who didn't listen much to what I said but promptly told me that from the alignment of my teeth I was a 'grinder' and that the pain was due to 'grinding' and would be sorted if I wore a mouth guard at night-time. I was sceptical and found it hard to believe that the level of pain I was experiencing was due to grinding my teeth! However, I went along with it and yes, the pain continued. In the meantime, I was living on paracetamol and felt physically drained of energy. I was continuing to work every day but life was becoming increasingly difficult. At this point, I went back to 'the specialist' who persisted with his 'grinding' theory even though my husband spoke for me during the consultation as I was in so much pain By this stage, my doctor had referred me via the NHS to see a maxillofacial specialist as he thought I had 'stones' in my salivary glands. This was ruled out but that visit was an experience I won't forget for the wrong reasons. I was instructed that the pain was due to nail biting and that I should continue to wear the mouth guard which I had already privately paid for - all very dismissive! At that consultation, I mentioned that I had read about Trigeminal Neuralgia and was concerned that my symptoms matched - this was ruled out and I was advised to ‘read the internet health blogs with caution’. I left the hospital the way that I had come, in excruciating pain. At work, I noticed that when I answered the phone I would get 'shocks' in my mouth which took my breath away but I couldn't explain what they were. Then, one afternoon, before addressing a large audience, I noticed that the shocks were coming and going more frequently especially when I spoke. This was a new development and I now know that the Trigeminal Neuralgia had progressed at an alarming rate. By mid February 2009, nine months from the time the pain commenced, I really wasn't well at all and had no diagnosis apart from the fact that my pain was due to 'nail biting and teeth grinding'. Life was becoming a struggle and even my family were beginning to think it ‘was all in my mind'. I felt absolutely helpless. Shortly afterwards, and whilst at work, I had what I can only describe as an 'attack'. I felt a lightning bolt of the highest velocity going through my body. This description sounds dramatic, but believe me, the attack was not comparable to anything I had ever experienced before. Thankfully, I was outside at the time because I screamed so loudly that 'I would have wakened the dead'. It was like experiencing a form of torture which gripped me with pain from my mouth right through to my feet. After it had passed or fizzled out, I couldn't believe that it was still possible for me to be standing upright and alive!!!
  • 2. In desperation and panic, I rang the 'dental consultant' who insisted that I go to my doctor for the following medication - Trileptal. I had no idea what was happening to me and in my naivety I thought that the prescribed medication would take the pain away and that I would be okay after a few days - a bit like taking an antibiotic, I suppose! That didn't happen and the pain continued but I had no more lightning strikes for a couple of weeks. I continued to work. I was the boss and needed to be there and, anyway, what could I say was wrong with me apart from the fact that my mouth was in agony? It was easier to work and say nothing - who would be interested anyway? Then, one Friday morning, I finally cracked; I couldn't go on. The pain had beaten me and the shocks were becoming ever more frequent, driving me to my knees. It was impossible for me to conduct a conversation or continue with my daily work duties. The pain was relentless. I left work that day a broken and fearful spirit. That was my last day at work for a year and four months. Now on sick leave, my pain escalated and so my GP advised me to increase the medication. This I did without any effect, and still with no idea what was happening to me although I was becoming increasingly aware that what I had read on the internet regarding TN matched my symptoms. By this stage, I could not eat or speak. Just trying to get food into my mouth was an arduous procedure and it was easier to sip nutritional shakes. Even the slightest movement left me reeling in pain. If I got in a comfortable position on the sofa, I lay there all day; my mother had become my carer. The breakthrough for me came via my dentist. I spoke to her again and asked if an emergency appointment could be arranged at the Maxillofacial Unit of my local hospital. At that consultation I saw a different consultant. He immediately took me seriously and could see that I was in difficulties. He gave me a lidocaine injection which he said would last for five hours, long enough for me to lie still in an MRI scanner. However, I should point out that I did have private health insurance cover so the series of events which occurred next were all done through private health insurance. I dread to think how many more months of torture I would have experienced had I not had that cover. Indeed, I am saddened that there are so many TN patients who are not taken seriously because of the lack of information and provision regarding TN, and who are trapped within an inadequate system! My knowledge of TN is based on the TNA literature, especially' Striking Back'. The Maxillofacial Consultant recognised that I was desperate for help and also organised for me to see a neurologist the following day .... I saw the neurologist and for the first time in 10 months, suitable medication was prescribed for me. He diagnosed Trigeminal Neuralgia, saying that my scans showed that a blood vessel was wrapped around the fifth cranial nerve and that this was the cause of the pain. He organised for me to be seen by a pain doctor within a few days, as by this stage I was becoming dehydrated and could not speak much due to the pain. It was difficult even to swallow as my own saliva triggered attacks which were relentless. The pain doctor recommended 'an injection through the cheek’, something called a radiofrequency, and said that would get rid of the pain for possibly five years. I may be a little numb afterwards, he said. As for the procedure, it would be a bit uncomfortable but I would be in and out of hospital in one day. My husband did most of the talking at that meeting and, in fact, he was the one who remembered what was said. I was so ‘drugged up’ with the maximum dose of anticonvulsants that I had little memory of the event. The only thing I
  • 3. knew was that I couldn't go on like this and if an injection would sort the pain, then I had to have it done. Within two days I was having 'radiofrequency of the trigeminal nerve', an experience forever imprinted on my mind. The initial procedure took place whilst I was awake and if TN pain was excruciating, then the pain of that injection was off the scale. Words fail me when I think about it now! I came out of theatre traumatised and more frightened than I have ever been in my life. I felt terrible. However, I was told that in a few days I would be okay and feeling fine. This was not to be. As far as everyone around me was concerned, I had just had a 'procedure', an 'injection', and an overnight stay in hospital and they just wanted me fixed, better. I was feeling far from better. My face, now numb, was so very painful. The attacks had gone but had been replaced with the most weird and painful sensations. My face was freezing cold, colder than a freezer, and I had to be tightly wrapped up in a scarf all the time to try and prevent the coldness from consuming me. My face felt as if it was being cut with glass and my skin felt as if it was being torn. I scratched and scratched. I hated speaking as it hurt me. I couldn't chew on the right side of my mouth (still can't) and I had no taste. This was the trade off and I hadn't expected or been warned about any of it - only that I could be numb! I felt as bad as ever and, although I did try to come off the medication, the pain in my face was so unbearable that I needed something to deal with the nerve pain. Life was not good. At that stage, April 2009, I came across a website hosted by TNA UK. I was surprised to read stories about people who had had surgery for pain like mine. I had been told that an MVD was only an option once all the other, non- invasive options had been explored. However, having browsed the website, I realised that other TN patients in the UK had had an MVD as a first option. By now the TN pain was beginning to break through the numbness and I knew it was only a matter of time before I had a full blown attack. However, I tried to keep the level of medication as low as possible as this helped me to function better. I made another appointment with my neurologist to discuss an MVD and to ask how I could see a neurosurgeon. I was told that an MVD couldn't be done in Northern Ireland and that the closest hospital to us was in England. I asked for a referral to a neurosurgeon there as I desperately wanted my life back. I contacted the TNA for advice. I flew to England at my own expense and met a neurosurgeon there. He was a man experienced in the field of TN and MVDs. He told me that my MRI scan showed 'a vascular compression' and, had I lived in England, I would have been offered an MVD as a first option and as a matter of urgency. My TN was classic - I was a classic TN case. The bad news for me was that the operation could not be done just now as I had too high a level of dysaesthesia - painful numbness. I would need to wait for a while to see if the painful numbness receded and if the TN pain continued to break through. He assured me that if the pain broke through, the operation would be done. I went back home, disappointed of course, but I knew that his decision was sensible. My life was on hold... The summer of 2009 was a bit of a blur. I was by now getting breakthrough pain on a regular basis, although the freezing cold feeling was not as bad as
  • 4. it had been. However, I couldn't tolerate wind on my face or air- conditioning. My speech was poor as, yet again, that had become a trigger for pain. I was fearful of a big attack and hated to go out on my own. The TNA UK had become my lifeline and support. In June 2009, I asked to see the neurosurgeon again. He was not available but I saw another experienced neurosurgeon. He assured me that he would do the MVD, but now the bombshell - because I had had an injection, my chances of success were not as high – about 75-80%! That was news to me. However, despite that, my answer to him was clear; I was going to go through with the surgery! My surgery took place in England in late September 2009. I was, of course, away from home, family and friends and, yes, that did impact on me a lot but I was determined that this was my only chance to get my life back. It wasn't only about me; it was for my family too as they had cared for me every day. I was in hospital for just over three weeks as I picked up an infection when there and had to go back to surgery again. However, after the second operation, I left hospital the following day to take an 8-hour journey on the ferry back to Belfast. That was by far the toughest day of my life! At home, recovery was slow but with the support from my family and friends, I got there! They encouraged me to fight every day and to be positive about the future. My faith in God was also my rock and I knew that despite all the problems, I would get there. Now, almost one year after my MVD, I am pain-free! Yes, I still have a dense numbness in my face but the gripping fear of a TN attack is gone. I have been able to return to my career - something which I thought would not be possible. However, I live one day at a time and I don't take anything for granted. TN has taught me the preciousness of family and friends, and has forced me to be a stronger person. July 2010

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