The internet must be like heaven on earth to hypochondriacs. Google a symptom, or a string of symptoms, and you'll discover all the fascinating lurid details of every possible illness to which those said symptoms could relate.
And even if your symptoms don't fit a particular illness, you'll be sure to find a forum in which complete strangers divulge the most intimate details of their medical history in order to get a diagnosis by proxy.
I'm normally a fairly sensible person, but even I find these websites turn you into a bit of a paranoid freak.
Earlier this year, sick of being plagued with intermittent back pain -- a kind of pulsating cramp in my lefthand flank -- I convinced myself I had a kidney stone. I went to the doctor and he simply dismissed it as a muscular pain that could be alleviated if I changed my lifestyle -- sit in a different seat at home, stop riding my bike and watch my posture at work.
I was a little pissed off, because I thought the pain warranted more of an explanation, but not long later we bought a new bed (as part of our bedroom redecoration project) and I've not experienced the pain since.
Fast forward to late July and while on holiday in Madeira my lefthand index finger, just near the nail, is painful, red and a little swollen. I figured I'd knocked it against something and not noticed, so I didn't think much more about it.
Then, over the course of the next couple of months, I notice my fingernails are beginning to look a little unhealthy. Some have developed dimples on the surface, others have ridges, there's some thickening in places and other bits that are flaking off. One fingernail looks a slightly yellow colour.
I figure maybe my nails are dehydrated, but moisturising doesn't work, so I hide them under a coat of clear nail varnish -- a special type designed to help "problem nails" which cost me £8 for a tiny little bottle -- and hope the problem will go away.
Meanwhile, the joints closest to the nail on each finger, become swollen and red. This takes two or three months to develop, walking its way through all my fingers on both hands, so it doesn't particularly worry me until one morning in late October I find it almost too painful to grip the handlebars on my bike.
On a week's holiday in New York in early November the pain eased, helped I suspect by mild weather, but back in London, the cold winter mornings began to take their toll. I was beginning to find it almost too painful to get dressed -- I simply couldn't pull up my trousers without wincing because any bending of the fingers was agony -- and so I abandoned riding the bike altogether.
Then, as you'll recall, I developed a pain in my neck in early December. This morphed into a shoulder and back ache, which two visits to a sports massage therapist didn't truly sort. In fact, on my second visit in two weeks, I was told that the situation was worse than my first visit! "There's something going on here that's more than just muscular," I was told. "Perhaps it might be time to visit an osteopath."
So, let's recap my symptoms: ongoing nail problems, pain in my finger joints and a stiff neck. It never occurs to me that they might actually be linked until I decide to do a Google search on "pitted nails". Here I am thinking I'll discover I've got a vitamin deficiency and after a quick visit to the health store I'll be able to sort it all out and my nails will return to being normal -- pink and healthy.
Little did I know that I would spend the next couple of hours trying not to climb up the walls in panic as I discovered pitted nails and red swollen joints was linked to a very rare form of arthritis. The nail in the coffin, so to speak, was the realisation that neck stiffness was another symptom.
After two sleepless nights, convinced I had this terrible illness, I went to see my GP. I half expected him to dismiss my fears the same way he did when I thought I had a kidney stone. But no, he confirmed my self-diagnosis. I have psoriatic arthritis.
Three weeks ago I'd never even heard of this disease, now I'm a minor expert. People who have the skin condition psoriasis often develop this form of arthritis, but I don't have the skin condition, making me one of those weird few (1 in 10) that get the arthritis first. (Since my initial diagnosis I have noticed a light rash on my feet and ankles, so I suspect the psoriasis has arrived. Woo-hoo, lucky me!)
After seeing my GP, I sorted out an appointment with a specialist in rheumatology, who arranged for blood-tests and X-rays of my hands to confirm the diagnosis. I will know more about my prognosis and ongoing treatment when I see him again on Tuesday.
In the meantime, I am on anti-inflammatory medication (diclofenac), which has reduced the pain and swelling in my fingers, although the first week I started taking it I suffered from abdominal cramping. I wasn't sure which was worse, the pain in my fingers or the pain in my tummy, but that seems to have settled down now. I have, however, suffered with a terrible stiff neck (again) these past two days, eased in part by a hot gel pack, so I will be asking what I can do to reduce that problem in the future.
Is there a moral to this story? Probably not. But just as they say the eyes are the window to the soul, your fingernails can be a sign of what's going on elsewhere in your body. I left it a long time to get treatment, but that's because I hadn't joined the dots... Thank goodness for the internet -- and private health insurance.