Cases too complex for a specialism other than general practice

It was a Friday evening. It’s almost always a Friday when this sort of case presents. She was in most ways unremarkable. She smiled readily, wasn’t evidently confused and worked in a senior administrative role. She came after work. This was the story:

I have a pain in my shoulder that becomes intense in my left arm pit. I can hardly bear to touch my arm pit. My hand becomes numb and cold. Today it’s so bad I’m finding it hard to turn the steering wheel.

I had 15 mins to sort this out, no scans, no blood tests, no discussion with a ‘team’ of young doctors working to pass their exams. She was describing symptoms that may have indicated a neurological emergency. And yet none of it made sense. She hadn’t fallen or been involved in any other trauma. There was no rash, no swelling. She swung her left arm over her head without any difficulty. I could not detect neurological signs, reflexes were normal. No Horner’s syndrome. No breast lesion. No obvious sensory loss. Twenty minutes later I could find nothing in her records or in her presentation that gave me any clue to the cause of these symptoms. And yet she was clearly worried. Regardless of the outcome I had to achieve one thing- this person like every other person who seeks help from a general practitioner needed to know that she had been taken seriously. Not for us the option of sending her back to whence she came with a note:

No organic pathology. Refer elsewhere.

A number of possibilities came to mind. Top of the list was ‘brachial plexus neuropathy‘ or Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. There were no objective signs at the time of presentation and I had never seen this before albeit that I had read about it sometime while at medical school. But then that’s primary care. We are the first port of call for anyone entering the healthcare system and often they present too early for anything to have manifested objectively. Not for us the text book presentation. About this diagnosis we know that:

Damage to the brachial plexus usually results from direct injury. Other common causes of damage to the brachial plexus include:

  • Birth trauma.
  • Injury from stretching.
  • Pressure from tumours.
  • Damage from radiation therapy.

Brachial plexus neuropathy may also be associated with:

  • Birth defects.
  • Exposure to toxins.
  • Inflammatory conditions.
  • Immune system issues.

There are also numerous cases in which no direct cause can be identified.

We also know that:

Signs and symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome vary from patient to patient due to the location of nerve and/or vessel involvement. Symptoms range from mild pain and sensory changes to limb threatening complications in severe cases. Physiopedia

Diagnosis is difficult, tests and examination can be normalprognosis is variable. By the time a diagnosis was made weeks later and she presented to a specialist everything was obvious. But on that Friday evening with a surgery full of patients I was on my own. My patient trusted that I would not let her walk out of there only to lose a limb. Assuming a benign cause she would be back and need more. This was the start of a longterm relationship and how I managed this episode would set the tone for the duration.

While improvement may begin in one to two months, complete functional recovery may not be achieved for up to three years or longer in some cases. Tsairis et al

Picture by Mahree Modesto

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