A Pained Life: Keep it Simple

By Carol Levy, Columnist

Simple always seems… so simple to me, especially if it’s medical-related and even more so when it involves pain.

When I was 23, I developed a terrible pain in my left arm. And oddly, whenever I turned my head, the pulse in that arm disappeared. 

My journey was typical. I had trouble getting a diagnosis and was told it was psychological. The doctors were not thinking it through. How can someone psychologically obliterate a pulse? 

Finally, I was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS). My symptoms were text book.

At the time, I was a physician assistant student and one doctor had lectured on TOS. Knowing I had it and without asking me, he directed students to have me turn my head and feel the pulse disappear.

Finally a thoracic surgeon told me, “I'll operate and remove your first rib. That should help.”

It sure did. I woke up from anesthesia and the pain was gone, and my pulse no longer disappearing.

A physical therapist also suggested an exercise: “Run your fingers up and down the wall a few times every day.” She never explained why.

“This is so silly,” I said to myself. After all, I was 23. I knew everything. What good can something this simple do? Just silliness. So I didn’t do it.

And I have had problems with my shoulder ever since. For over 40 years. All because simple seemed... too simple.

One more example. This time easy as pie escaped the doctors, except for one. 

Facial paralysis from trigeminal neuralgia sometimes causes my left eye to not close completely. As a result, my eye sometimes dries out to the point where it needs to be sewn closed. I abhor this, but I have had it done a number of times through the years. In truth, they wanted it to be done permanently 30 years ago. But they respected my choice not to.

On one occasion, three doctors agreed the eyelid had to be closed. Even the one who usually held out came on board. A fourth doctor was relatively new -- new enough to think outside the box -- and realized there might be another solution. 

Every night I taped the eye shut, using tissue paper and tape on both sides of the eye patch.

“Before we close it, let’s try this,” she said. “I want you to add one more piece of tape, directly down the middle.”

Seemed silly. You know, too simple. But I tried it anyway. And voila! The eye cleared within a day.

Between me and the doctors, simple often seems too silly, too unsophisticated, and unscientific. We are so accustomed to the harder answers: more drugs, more treatments, and more surgeries.

I regret greatly that the easy answer for my arm seemed so preposterous at the time that I refused to even try it. But I am so grateful that Dr. Smith saw the simple and made the suggestion anyway.

We get accustomed to high tech solutions, higher level treatments, stronger doses and more difficult surgeries.

I realized my journey is akin to going up a ladder. It is tempting to skip the first or even the second step on the ladder, forgetting or ignoring your pain. But each step carries more risk, and climbing the ladder becomes more difficult and dangerous the higher you go. 

Sometimes simple is exactly what we need.

Carol Jay Levy has lived with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial pain disorder, for over 30 years. She is the author of “A Pained Life, A Chronic Pain Journey.” 

Carol is the moderator of the Facebook support group “Women in Pain Awareness.” Her blog “The Pained Life” can be found here.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.