Doctors have a new tool as they chase the ghost of nerve pain

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Locating the source of nerve pain can be like chasing a ghost. That’s because nerve signals from the pain source frequently transmit the wrong location to the brain. Now, doctors are finding a way to narrow down and diagnose nerve pain’s origin, giving new hope to patients.

It’s estimated 15 to 20 million Americans suffer from nerve pain – that would include Robin Martinoli, who retired from the Pentagon. She took up quilting, but painful carpal tunnel syndrome changed her plans.

“I will never get my feeling back in these two fingers. If I go to pick up needles when I quilt, and I’d l think I’ve got one, I’ve got three or four of them,” Martinoli said.

Carpal tunnel is caused by compression of the nerves in her hand and wrist that produce constant, nagging pain.

“Until you relieve the nerve compression, it’s, generally, not going go away. So, the key to a good nerve test is figuring out where the source of your nerve generation is so that we can address the root of the problem,” said Dr. Nicholas Anastasio, a Mercy Medical Center non-surgical orthopedic.

A tool called electromyography, or EMG, can help solve that problem. When nerve conduction and EMG are performed together, skin electrodes measure signals sent along the nerve. then, a very small EMG needle records electrical activity in the muscle. The slower the signal, the greater the risk of damage.

“We did the nerve conduction test and confirmed that she had carpal tunnel on both sides," said Anastasio. "She hadn’t completely ruined the nerve over 30 or 40 years. It still was alive and intact. That allowed us the ability to justify carpal tunnel release which takes the pressure off the nerve and relieves the symptoms.”

“The recovery time was really quick and easy,” Martinoli added.

EMG can also distinguish between compressive nerve injuries, like carpal tunnel, and more serious neuromuscular diseases such as muscular dystrophy. Patients are advised to wait 21 days post-nerve injury to have the nerve signal speeds measured.

Contributors to this news report include: Donna Parker, Producer; Kirk Manson, Videographer; Roque Correa, Editor.

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