Patient tells how neurosurgeon at Spire Bristol Hospital ended nearly two years of agony
The stabbing pains in William Attew’s face were excruciating - so severe that at times he wished he could go to sleep and never wake up.
Mr Attew, a self-employed trainer and assessor in the gas industry, first experienced a niggling pain while wiping his left cheek with a towel after shaving. The discomfort was around his cheek bone but increasingly focused on his teeth.
After an exhaustive examination, his dentist said there was nothing wrong with his teeth but that the pain might be caused by trigeminal neuralgia. This is a condition that causes recurring severe pain in parts of the face, usually as a result of pressure on the trigeminal nerve.
It is estimated that 1 in 15,000 people suffer from trigeminal neuralgia although the actual figure may be significantly higher due to frequent misdiagnosis, with up to 40 per cent receiving dental treatment before the condition is identified.
The dentist suggested that Mr Attew see his GP who then referred him to a consultant who prescribed painkillers. When these had little effect he was referred to a neurosurgeon. Both agreed his problem was trigeminal neuralgia and prescribed various painkilling drugs and treatments before he was booked in for an operation in February 2008.
“This involved injecting glycerol into the trigeminal nerve on the surface of my brain and I was told that in the event that it did not work, then I may have to consider having the nerve cut completely, although I would lose feeling on one side of my face,” said Mr Attew.
“I did not like that idea because I was afraid of the side effects of such an action. The glycerol injection procedure went ahead but did not work”.
By now the pain at times was becoming unbearable.
Mr Attew, aged 58, of Staines, Middlesex, said: “I thought that if I could shut my eyes, lose the pain and never wake up, that would be preferable to continuing to live in pain – in truth I was suicidal.”
Mr Attew made notes about his experiences, writing in July/September, 2007: “Experiencing considerable pain. Unable to project voice to answer a telephone or often caught out mid-conversation when the pain becomes so acute that the only solution is to cut the call with no explanation why. It is also increasingly difficult to talk to a class of students.”
“I also spent £4,000-£5,000 of my own money with an orthodontist in the hope that he would solve my problem his treatment involving reshaping my jaw and bite,” he added.
“I was on such strong drugs that I could not function properly – and I could not drive. When I was taken into work, greeting and smiling, indeed any facial movement would trigger the most excruciating pain. If I talked, it had to be through gritted teeth to minimise facial movement, and carrying out my work became virtually impossible.
“Then several colleagues and friends asked if I had seen a TV programme about a young lady with a similar problem to mine who had been cured by an operation at a Bristol hospital.
“One of them found Spire Bristol Hospital on the internet and my wife made an appointment to see Nik Patel, a consultant neurosurgeon.
“My wife had to do the talking for me because I was in so much pain. Mr. Patel looked at my medical records and scans, examined me, diagnosed my problem immediately and put the wheels in motion”.
Mr Patel’s diagnosis was that the pain was caused by a blood vessel pressing on the trigeminal nerve. He performed an operation to decompress the nerve – easing the pressure on it and thus lessening the pain.
“Trigeminal neuralgia is regarded by many as possibly the worst pain imaginable, and when I met Mr Attew he was in severe distress,” said Mr Patel.
“He was unable to speak and any movement triggered excruciating face pain despite the medication that he took, which also made him drowsy and unable to concentrate during the consultation.”
Mr Attew added: “I knew from the moment I woke up that Mr Patel had sorted me out. It’s now seven months since I was cured and I am still thrilled to bits. The only after-effect is a tingle in my lip when I touch it which I treat as insignificant as in no way can it be considered a pain.
“I feel splendid and am leading a normal life again. I just want to thank Mr Patel and his team again and again.”