A shocking test of nerves
I’m not sure what was worse – the over-sized needles stuck into my leg or the electric shocks.
Some background: about six months ago, I developed pain and numbness in my right leg. At first I tried to ignore it, imagining it just some strange runner’s pain, but when it didn’t go away, I stopped my exercise routine and went to my family doctor. He referred me to physical therapy which, when after three months of treatment, nothing helped, referred me to an orthopedist, who in turn referred me to a test called an EMG.
EMG stands for an “electromyogram”; it’s designed to detect abnormal muscle electrical activity. The orthopedist didn’t want to go forward on something major – surgery, cortisone injections – until he ruled out some sort of nerve damage.
An EMG is either a very popular test or they don’t conduct it very often; I had to wait a painful three months for the test which I finally did this morning.
How do they detect that abnormal muscle electrical activity? By sticking needles in the affected area and asking you to push against the doctor’s hand or the table as hard as you can. A machine next to the table translates your efforts into the noise of some alternative universe ultrasound (is my leg having a baby?) The pushing itself isn’t so bad but, dang, that needle felt bigger than the ones they use in acupuncture or to take blood.
For good measure, the orthopedist had also recommended another test call an NCV, for nerve conduction velocity. For this one, they attach metal conductors to your leg and feet and pump a jolt of electricity into the nerve. The first ones were OK; it felt like a strong static electricity shock, not much worse than rubbing a balloon on your head. But the electricity got progressively stronger. My leg jumped and I cried out.
The nurse told me to clench my fist as tight as I could. “Is this part of the test,” I asked. “No,” she replied. “It will take your attention away from the pain.” Super.
“Just three more,” the unsmiling, entirely uncommunicative doctor said.
And then it was over. There appeared to be blood spots on my leg, although on closer inspection, they turned out to be dots of magic marker ink.
“Wait outside while I write up the results,” the doctor barked, in what to him was probably his gentlest voice.
The whole process took less than a half an hour. As I walked out of the hospital and towards the light rail to head home, I opened the envelope with the conclusions that might make or break my case. Everything was entirely fine, the paper said; they’d found nothing.
While that’s normally the kind of answer you’d like to hear, for me it means more tests, more prodding and poking on the way to finding a treatment. My orthopedist said I will be able to run again. I just didn’t realize what he meant was running from doctor to doctor. Shocking, but true, so to speak.