There was a time when Emily Reed was terrified to meet new people.
She wasn't shy, but an unusual medical condition called hyperhidrosis made the 22-year-old Mansfield, Ohio, resident dread shaking hands with others.
Hyperhidrosis, or excessive sweating, occurred in Emily’s hands, feet and armpits since childhood. She first knew she was different in elementary school, when other kids would make fun of her sweaty hands.
“It would take me awhile to show people who I really was, because I was initially very embarrassed of my condition,” she says. “It seemed like everybody's initial reaction was either ‘Ewww!’ or ‘That’s so weird.’ Nobody wants to be gross or weird. … It does a lot to a person's self esteem.”
Hyperhidrosis also plagued her as she pursued her passion for art throughout her early years. She had difficulty drawing because she would have to keep paper towels or fabric under her hand to protect the paper from becoming wet. Working with small objects for sculptures was painstaking, as the pieces often would slip from her hands.
The condition also proved costly, when the moisture would ruin one computer keyboard after another.
But the sweaty armpits were the worst. “How horrible to go through puberty and deal with boys when you have enormous pit stains on your shirt,” she recalled. “It was so humiliating, I eventually would only wear black shirts in high school. I really feel like having hyperhidrosis hindered me from trying new things and meeting new people.”
No clear cause of hyperhidrosis has been identified to date, but it generally involves sweat glands that overreact to stimuli, such as heat, hormones, stress or exercise. It can be inherited, but Emily knows of no one else in her family who has it.
She learned the name of her nemesis late in elementary school when she went to a dermatologist. She tried every kind of nonsurgical treatment: oral, topical, “weird” machines that shocked her hands. Nothing worked well, and she didn’t want to be bound to such repetitious methods the rest of her life.
Her family turned to the Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute at Cleveland Clinic, whose thoracic surgeons specialize in minimally invasive hyperhidrosis surgery – an effective treatment with less post-operative pain and a quicker recovery than open approaches.
She immediately was given an appointment with thoracic surgeon Sudish Murthy, MD, PhD. In the summer of 2006, when Emily was 19, Dr. Murthy performed a thoracoscopic sympathectomy, which involves interrupting a specific portion of the main sympathetic nerve.
Through two small incisions under the armpit, a specific bundle of cells that causes sweating is located and removed. Then the signal that tells the body to sweat in a specific region is “turned off.” The procedure usually is completed within two hours, and many patients go home the day of surgery.
Emily characterized her Cleveland Clinic experience as exceptional and gushed about her physician.
“Dr. Murthy has a great reputation for his surgical skills. Not only does he live up to his reputation, he surpassed it with the understanding and great personality anyone would want their doctor to have,” she says. “If I ever need any other surgery, I won’t go anywhere else.”
And best of all, her condition has greatly improved. Now, she is a mom and nursing student at MedCentral College of Nursing.
“It was like my life could finally begin!” she recalls. “I think I am still the same person, although I am more at ease meeting people now. At first, it was so weird having dry hands — I would unconsciously lick them!
“After awhile I forgot what it was like to have sweaty hands. It was awesome to never have to think about it or worry about it again. I don’t think it changed my personality, but it definitely changed the way I live my life day to day.”