Debilitating pain. Unbearable noises. Constant retching. An illness or ache often means a trip to the doctor, a diagnosis, and eventual relief. But sometimes symptoms stump even the best physicians. Reader’s Digest found seven medical mysteries from around the country, the patients who vowed to go to any lengths to find a cure, and the doctors who helped them through their worst pains and life-endangering illnesses. Included in the story is Diane Hicks, a 39-year-old woman from Owings, MD, district director for Giant Food Stores and mother of three.
Diane Hicks started noticing dull aches, like a toothache, in the back left side of her mouth when she was at work. She also started getting headaches that would last only a few seconds. She attributed the pain to a root canal she’d had that summer, but the dentist couldn’t find anything wrong. The pain grew worse and more frequent through the fall. By Christmas, she was getting incredible episodes of jabbing pain to the point where she passed out.
She was unable to celebrate Christmas with her three young kids and spent the day crying on her couch because she didn’t want to spend the holiday in the emergency room. When she finally went to the emergency room the next day, the stabbing pain was so intense, she felt as if she was being electrocuted every few minutes.
An MRI, CAT scan and other tests all came back negative. Diane knew there had to be something wrong so she showed the doctor where the pain was by stretching her hand to cover her left temple, jaw, and the spot under her nose. At that exact moment, another doctor was passing by and saw her make that gesture. The second doctor recommended a neurologist, saving her life.
Diane discovered she had trigeminal neuralgia and learned about a surgery at Johns Hopkins that could cure it. Dr. Michael Lim at Johns Hopkins agreed that she had trigeminal neuralgia that has classic symptoms of sharp, stabbing pain that comes in episodes and has triggers. It’s believed to be caused by an artery pressing against the face’s trigeminal nerve.
As that artery pulsates over the years, it wears away the nerve’s insulation (called myelin) until it exposes the nerve endings, resulting in extreme pain. It’s not common, but it’s been known for a long time—it’s mentioned in the novel Moby-Dick by its other name, tic douloureux. It’s also been called the suicide disease, because the pain makes some people want to kill themselves.
Diane had a surgical procedure called microvascular decompression, which involved making an incision behind the ear, opening a small piece of bone, then lifting the artery off the nerve and placing a Teflon cushion between them. Diane’s artery was actually pressing so hard that when the doctor released it, he found it had left a little dent in the ne