Recently, after another hospital letter landed on the doormat, it was time yet again for a visit to the consultant neurologist, whose care I am under in the attempt to shed some light on the medical mystery that feels has become my life. The beginning of the appointment was the benign initial chat on how I have been feeling since the last appointment (a really short time to cover a year in just a few minutes!) and the regular neurological examination, including testing of my reflexes, a not so favourite as it always produces the most violent of spasms, increasing the trembling in the legs ten-fold and increases the weakness in them.
After the standard neurological examination was completed and the consultant thoroughly reviewed my extensive notes, which almost resembled the length of a novel and eventually came up with a diagnosis – Functional Neurological Disorder.
For those, who may not have heard of this condition before, functional neurological disorder is a condition in which a patient such as myself experiences neurological symptoms such as weakness, movement disorders, sensory symptoms or blackouts. Patients exhibiting signs of a functional neurological disorder however shows no signs of structural abnormalities but is rather a problem with how the brain functions. It is a problem with how the brain is sending or receiving messages. If we imagine the brain to be a computer, then conditions such as MS or Parkinson’s Disease would be a problem with the hardware, whereas functional neurological condition is a problem with the software. Just as a computer crashes or becomes extremely slow due to a software bug, neurological symptoms arise when there is an interruption in the messages being sent or received by the brain.
There is much debate on what exactly causes the dysfunction of the nervous system. Some suggest that there is a psychological component which manifests itself in a physical manner, but is merely a theory to why these symptoms occur. I suppose that this is one of the most frustrating aspects of being diagnosed with this condition; yes, it’s a label that explains the experience in terms of my physical health, however there are so many questions that cannot be answered. Reading the literature on this condition there are words such as possible and probable and no definite answers or explanations for the development of this condition. As I read more and am left with no real answers to my questions, I often wonder if the acronym of FND should really stand for ‘For No Diagnosis’. And with no such answers, how can we as patients be confident of the diagnosis? Is it a merely a label that doctors grasp at when they cannot find a definitive explanation of our symptoms? In my experience, the consultant almost pulled this diagnosis out of thin air.
Interestingly most of the anecdotes from others diagnosed with Functional Neurological Disorder describe how their symptoms often started out of the blue, like being struck by a bolt of lightning after which realising life will never quite be the same again. However, this was not the case for me, as what started off as minor symptoms slowly became more and more severe, as well as the introduction of new symptoms which was progressive in the same way as the original symptoms. And there is the big puzzling picture of the early days of my life when the doctors thought there was something wrong with me after I was born, leading to a brain scan at two days old. Growing up, I always complained about my pains in my legs which was worrisome to me but this was brushed away with reassurances they were merely growing pains. Surely, these must be important pieces of the puzzle that surrounds my symptoms?
So what now? Well, once again I have been referred to specialists for vestibular therapy to help with the dizziness and vertigo. A therapy that I am no stranger too having been through it several times before. I am not sure how I feel about this, initially I was reminded of the famous quote by Albert Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Do the doctors think that now I have a label, therapy will magically work when in the past it had no effect on my symptoms? But, although I am initially sceptical I will always try my hardest and will try anything for even the smallest of improvement to the debilitating effects of dizziness and vertigo.
I have also been referred to a specialist neurological hospital in London for a second opinion and to see if the consultants there can come up with any answers and more importantly ideas on how to treat or even manage the symptoms that more often than not run the show of my life!
Through my experiences however I have learnt that even after getting a label, diagnosis is not the end of the story…