How Samantha Thornett, of Hornchurch, aced her A-levels while battling complex regional pain syndrome - which left her unable to write

PUBLISHED: 11:20 27 August 2013 | UPDATED: 11:35 27 August 2013

Hard work: Samantha with her stellar A-level results

Hard work: Samantha with her stellar A-level results


Samantha Thornett woke up one day with pain in her hand so bad she couldn’t write. Eighteen months on it’s still there – and doctors don’t know why. The law fresher told Ramzy Alwakeel how she passed four A-levels without putting pen to paper.

Samantha had to use a laptop for her exams as she couldn't hold a penSamantha had to use a laptop for her exams as she couldn't hold a pen

It’s a common complaint – young people today spend too much time in front of computers.

But for Samantha Thornett, using a laptop was the only way to take her A-level exams.

That’s because the 18-year-old, of Kempton Avenue, Hornchurch, woke up one day with a rare nerve condition that left her unable to write – in the middle of her first year at college.

“You don’t realise how much of your life revolves around what you do with your hands,” Samantha told the Recorder. “I literally couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t do up my shoelaces or cut my food.”

Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS)

- Can last for weeks, months or years

- Can follow a fracture or break, but sometimes appears spontaneously

- Treated with painkillers and physiotherapy, but there is no cure

- Sufferers will wake up one day and find the pain gone

- NHS believes up to 14,000 people in England may be affected

- Can affect anyone, but most commonly occurs in women

- Average age for symptoms to start is 40

After a series of doctor’s appointments, Samantha was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome – a little-understood condition that leaves sufferers with an excruciating burning sensation in one limb.

To make matters worse, medics didn’t know what had caused it – or when it would go away.

Sometimes the condition is caused by a trauma to the affected arm or leg, but a less common variant can develop spontaneously after an insignificant knock or bash.

It’s thought this is what happened to Samantha, who didn’t sustain any hand or arm injuries before the pain developed.

Samantha’s A-level success at Havering Sixth Form College

A* in psychology

A* in general studies

A in law

B in physical education

Worse still, there’s no way of curing it, and no knowing when it will disappear.

Samantha, then an AS-level student at Havering Sixth Form College, knew she had to find a way to carry on with her studies so she could pursue her dream of studying law.

“I was in a bit of a pickle,” said Samantha, who is left-handed.

“I couldn’t use my left hand at all to begin with. I wasn’t able to dress myself for five months.”

A combination of painkillers and physiotherapy gave the former Emerson Park Academy student some limited movement back, and she can now type with both hands.

“The pain started just after my first [AS-level] exams in January 2012, so I’ve done three lots of exams on laptops now.

“Now I’m starting to write again, but it’s slow going because it’s such a fine movement.

“It was hard at the beginning, especially when I didn’t know what it was, but my mum, sister and brother have been fantastic.”

She added staff at Queen’s Hospital had been “amazing”.

While there’s no cure, Samantha’s hoping for the best – that she’ll wake up and the pain will be gone as suddenly as it arrived.

It sounds unrealistic, but in fact that’s how it usually happens.

“They say one day I’ll literally wake up and it’ll be gone, just like I woke up and it was there,” she said.

“They don’t know how – but one day the nerves will just turn back on.

“I think the longest case they’ve had is two years and I’m up to a year and a half.”

Samantha’s dedication and willpower should stand her in good stead for the law career she now hopes to pursue. Having gained two A* grades, an A and a B at A-level, she’s off to the University of Essex in Colchester next month.

“I didn’t want to let it get in my way,” said modest Samantha, “but it was trying to.”

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