Your arm is resting up against a boiling kettle. The skin starts to burn but you feel nothing. When and how do you realise? When you smell your skin crisping up like pork crackling? Welcome to life with a brachial plexus injury.
Loss of sensation brings the risk of unknowingly burning or scalding yourself. Well-meaning medical professionals and loved ones told me this repeatedly after the accident – I should be very careful.
The risk is real, but the likelihood is negligible. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve lifted my paralysed arm onto the kitchen bench and accidentally put my hand into the sandwich toaster.
More likely, and more serious, are the risks to the good arm.
Life with a brachial plexus injury – overuse
Overuse for example. One arm must now do the work of two. Increasing susceptibility to wear-and-tear conditions, such as RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury). There’s no escaping many everyday tasks, but small lifestyle changes can make a big difference.
Sitting at a computer all day? Be disciplined about keyboard breaks. Pretend you’re incontinent if you have to. Hovering over the mouse puts stress on the wrist. Switch to a vertical mouse for a more a natural, handshake posture. A weird looking mouse is a good conversation starter with new workmates.
Avoid intensive, repetitive physical tasks. When decorating get someone else to do the sandpapering. You have a beer in the garden instead. Living with a brachial plexus injury, the hardest lesson I’ve had to learn is to accept help. No one wants to feel like a slacker, but sometimes it’s best to step away.
Even relatively pedestrian activities can be hazardous. After a tenpin bowling outing with workmates, I needed 5 months of physiotherapy. The lesson? Two arms are needed to take the weight of the bowling ball before you hurl/throw/roll it. Gripping anything was painful for weeks. Opening a jar of pickled onions was out of the question. The physios massaged my damaged tendons. Pressing deep under my collarbone with their fingertips.
Life with a brachial plexus injury – the reality
A confession: although I’ve never burned or scalded my paralysed arm, I have injured it badly. Despite backpacking around the world… skydiving… climbing glaciers… scuba diving …I did the damage in my mother’s house. In my defence, it was before my morning coffee. Nothing good ever happens before morning coffee. My foot slipped on the stair carpet. As I fell backwards my arm swung behind my back, crunching under my body weight. There was a horrible tearing sound as I flailed around, trying to stop myself arse-tobogganing down the stairs.
The arm dislocated at the elbow, flopped around for a few seconds, then snapped back into place.
I limped pathetically to the living room to sit on the sofa. The advantage of nerve damage is that I couldn’t feel the pain. The sensation was peculiar. Nausea and dizziness that comes with intense pain, but not the pain itself.
To get it checked out I went to Hull Royal Infirmary. The same hospital where I spent 3 months after the accident. It’s nice to check out old haunts when you’re visiting your hometown isn’t it?
The X-ray results were good. Only soft tissue damage. No broken bones. I should keep the arm elevated and iced. Not easy at the start of a 3-week holiday, travelling around the UK, France and Italy.
Over the following days, the arm swelled badly, turning all shades purple. It looked like 2 blood sausages end-to-end.
London was our next destination. ‘Are you still going to do it?’ My mother asked, concerned. ‘Travel around Europe? Are you still going to do it? What if your arm gets worse?’
I’d looked forward to this holiday for a long time. It had been 6 years since my last trip to Europe. Connections and hotels were booked. ‘If it gets worse?’ I said. ‘Mam it can’t get any worse. I can’t move the arm. I can’t feel the arm. It can’t get any worse. We already have the worst case scenario!’ She laughed. Conceding I had a good point. ‘Yeah I suppose you’re right’.