Freaky Fibro and the elegance of precision

As the title hints, it’s been another fascinating visit with my pain diagnostician.

His current working diagnosis is fibromyalgia, which he characterizes as being capable of throwing some hairy curve balls (my terminology, not his) including the growing litany of food sensitivities, which solves a major problem in my mind.

Thyroid disease can also trigger the symptom complex that otherwise gets tagged “fibromyalgia” (more on symptom complexes in a minute.) I mentioned that I’ve had my thyroid checked several times and last year came up with Hashimoto’s (meaning my immune system is attacking on my thyroid.) Since I developed the first symptoms of this central sensitization around 16 years ago, it seems not like a precipitating event; since “normal” thyroid activity is not the most meaningful term, I’m not sure it’s irrelevant. I guess I’ll learn more as we go on.

He’s also checking my hemoglobin A1c to check for underlying blood sugar instability. I’m always happy to check that. Also B12 (pernicious anemia etc.) and D3.

Now we come to the fascinating (and crucial) distinction between a symptom complex and a disease. Both are used as diagnoses, but they mean different things. (Yes, I’ve used the word “disease” indescriminately here, for simplicity.) Medically speaking, a disease has a cause that can be targeted, what you might call a diagnostic end-point. A symptom complex doesn’t have that level of targeted responsibility for the illness; it’s a consistent set of symptoms that cluster together often enough to get a diagnostic label, which takes some doing.

Here are the two scenarios.

On the one hand, you’ve got someone with a lot of pain, funky guts, sensory reactivity, and normal labs. The doctor (we hope) rules out any other possible cause, and decides the diagnosis is, say, Fibromyalgia. This is a symptom complex, because it’s described in terms of what it does to the person, not in terms of specific pathogens or organs as the causative thingy. (I’m tired; thingy will do.)

On the other, you’ve got someone with a lot of pain, funky guts, sensory reactivity, and thyroid labs that are out of whack. Further examination of the thyroid discovers specific thyroid abnormalities which can be treated. With treatment, the symptoms subside or even disappear. The diagnosis is the disease of hypothyroidism, with a diagnostic end-point in an organ (as in this case) or pathogen.

CRPS/RSD, Fibromyalgia, and some other hideous conditions are symptom complexes. This is used by some as a reason not to “believe in” those conditions, because they aren’t “real.” This is intellectually dishonest, but it does no good to tell them that; assuming that a lack of diagnostic end-point equals lack of ill-health is blatantly absurd, but this is a reality we must contend with. It’s a drawback of having such a flexible language as English, where the same word can mean different things from one context to the next: in Plain English, disease and illness are interchangeable, but in Medical Jargon, they’re definitely different: disease means specific diagnostic end-point, illness tends to suggest a pathogen, and condition is the catch-all term — but is used more for things that really aren’t diseases or illnesses. Another example on a hot issue: in medicine, narcotic refers specifically to opioid analgesics; in law enforcement, it’s a MUCH wider term, encompassing any substance that legislators have decided is not legal. In courts, the meaning of the term has to change depending on who’s involved, which has to be weird.

No wonder there’s confusion around anything medical. What a setup, eh?

This brings us to the physician ethical structure this doc works with, and where it fits into this patient’s worldview. You can almost hear me purring comfortably from here.

He speaks of himself as a Palliative Care specialist. Most people think of Hospice when they hear palliative care, but it’s wider and simpler than that. It means this physician has chosen a field defined by the fact that his patients will probably never recover. That’s what palliative care means: keeping the patient as comfortable and functional as possible, for the rest of their (probably, but not necessarily, truncated) lives.

Yeah, pretty darn special. How many of you who see pain docs hear them use the term “palliative care” naturally and fluidly, without wincing and scuttling on? It’s a little thing that means a lot. It makes me realize I’m seeing a doctor who CAN be there for the long haul, if need be. Someone who would NOT throw me off with the very natural cringe of frustration and failure most docs feel when they can’t save you, or when you’re in the final downhill slide and they can’t face you dying. He can take that strain without failing me. That’s rare indeed.

Palliative care is the very heart of chronic pain care, and I couldn’t face that myself until today.

So now I just have to die before he retires…

Kidding, Mom!

I’d like to go over his approach more, but the fog is descending; it was an early morning and I’m paying for it as usual. I’ve got lots of notes, though. It’s great food for thought, so, with luck, I’ll come back to it.

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Aw, nuts!

While I was mulling the constancy of nausea and yuckiness, looking for a reason more useful than “it’s winter”, I realized I had relentless cascades of post-nasal drip.

The stomach isn’t too fond of relentless cascades of post-nasal drip, because the glucoprotein complex generically called “mucus”, which we usually call “snot”, is not that easy to digest. It’s not really meant to be digested; it’s meant to do its job (picking up and trapping obnoxious particles or germs or what-have-you) and then get blown out. It’s not supposed to roll into the tummy in a never-ending stream.

me-tongue-out

I was reading up on GI issues (as one does) and stumbled across a piece which said something like, “Stay away from nuts and seeds entirely. The oil is rancid by the time it gets to you and that rancidity is poison to the systems of people who have leaky guts and sensitized systems. You can usually tell because the immune reaction affects your sinuses and causes lots of extra mucus.” If you’re curious, this article was about the GAPS diet and explained the whats and whys.

I threw my hands up in exasperation and disgust. I relied on nut and seed butters to start my day, because they cut the morning pain down to a quite bearable level and gave me a bit of protein that didn’t bring my stomach up in revolt. My mornings are tough enough and this info just pissed me off.

The next morning, I woke up noticing that I didn’t have post-nasal drip. Nice. Then I started on my morning breakfast of apple (malic acid helps the pain ease off too) and sunflower or almond butter (I forget which.)

Two bites…. then a relentless cascade of post-nasal drip.

My first thoughts were mostly expletives. Totally unprintable in a family-friendly blog.

I went off the rails a bit. I’ve been dealing with this disease complex for nigh on 15 years now and I have evolved a pretty limited (and not cheap) diet to manage it. Rather than thinking, “Oh great, a good clue as to what I can do to improve things!” I mentally roared, “WHAT THE BLEEDING HECK CAN I EAT ANYWAY????”

Tiger yawning hugely. Looks like roaring.

Let’s review.

– Genetically-determined mild allergy to white beans. That means soy, chick peas (which wipes out hummus and much Indian food), most multi-bean soups and salads.

– Roaring neurologic gluten response, which in my case spills over into related molecules. This means: no wheat, barley, triticale, rye, oats — in fact, most grains; nor fresh milk, soft cheese, dairy ice cream; and eggs only in strict moderation.

– Hashimoto’s disease means my body is chewing up my thyroid. This means definitely no soy, but also, no broccoli, chard, kale, bok choy, cauliflower — no cabbage/brassicas of any kind — and that’s an awful lot of vegetables not to have as an option, including most winter veg. And yet, I need lots of vegetables and happen to like all of those. Even in small amounts, brassicas can squash thyroid response. It’s very sad.

– Candida/c.diff overgrowth, which means no sugars (not even unrefined honey or maple syrup, not even low-glycemic stuff like agave [which makes me cramp] or maltose), no rice, minimal fruit, no juice, no root starch (too high in sugars) or white starch of any kind (if I’m doing this diligently) which wipes out the potato family and remaining grains except amaranth (I can’t digest quinoa at all, so it’s not even an option.) Then there are the limitations that are less obvious, which means, no tea or coffee, no vinegar or cultured food (if I followed that parameter, I’d be unable to digest anything and my guts would be even worse), no artificial anything because they tend to be grown on yeast or malt slurries (which is fine because packaged foods tend to happen to other people, not me.)

– The constant immune-y fuss means I should probably be more diligent about the inflammatory culprits: tomatos, eggplant, potatos, peppers, the whole belladonna group. I LOVE those things. Also, no canned foods, because the trace amounts of preservative stuff are so neurotoxic that molecules matter to my body, and homemade canned stuff can still grow trace amounts of the fungusy-yeasty stuff that boots me back into candida territory.

– Now, no nuts or seeds. At all. Possibly no cooking oil. I was diligent about getting the freshest and checking best-by dates and inspecting the packaging, for the candida reason. Not enough any more. No nuts or seeds at all.

OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW OW

I think i’m down to squashes, lettuce, and incredibly expensive pastured/wild flesh foods. Oh, and grassfed (Kerrygold) butter. I can put that on the squash, I guess.

To be frank, I haven’t been very diligent about eliminating the root veg and I’ve had some broccoli and cauli lately, because it’s freaking winter and I’ve needed to eat something that’s available.

Since reading about the nuts/seeds thing, I totally fell off the rails. No gluten, because I’d rather die than go through all that again, but I’ve gone to town on sweets, rice, vinegar, ice cream, root veg, brassicas, belladonnas — everything but nuts and seeds.

Wide-eyed kitten staring at a roast chicken on table in front of its face

Paying the price for it, too… as one does.

Two nights ago, I made myself a new bedtime meditation recording, designed to rebuild my own mental core. I’ve just about had it with trying to cope with the world (if you have one eye on US politics, you’ll understand that well enough, especially if you have friends and family who are losing care due to political brangling, losing property due to corporate gamesmanship, or losing their liberty due to being not-White); add to that some family crises of illness and a bereavement in the extended family, and… yeah.) I’ve reached March feeling absolutely shredded inside.

And then…. NUTS!

Old amber-screen lettering showing *TILT* like on old pinball machines

Lately and increasingly, my brain was really resisting the relaxation response training — which is very odd for me — and I was having nightmares and waking up 5 times a night. I thought that, if I backed off the calming exercises and instead re-integrated my core self, that would make more sense than trying to pretend everything’s all right for half an hour. I have no idea what that looks like for other people, but I have a pretty good idea what it looks like for me. So, I made a recording with a series of mental/imaginative exercises that boil down to my individualized psychological structural support.

The chaos and rage are abating, which is just as well, because I have a follow-up appointment with my pain specialist tomorrow. I’m calming myself down with this article before turning my fragile attention to encapsulating the physical fallout and revelations of this winter in a coherent patient update.

I get to tell him that I’m seeing the GI specialist later this week, and that I have tested marginally positive in a screening test for mold toxicity, so more blood tests are coming from my allergist. That would actually explain a lot, but I’m not sure where he stands on the subject. Mold toxicity, as a driver of illness, is one of those things where the physician’s belief-state has more bearing on care than the coherent, consistent, verifiable facts of the patient’s disease-state — in that respect, it’s like chronic fatigue, neurogenic pain, and most immune disorders. Familiar territory to many of us.

A few days ago, I apologized to J for being such a piece of work lately. I told him I’ve been ill and in more pain than usual. He said, with the kindest intentions, “Well, it’s hard to act right when you’re sick. You have to feel good.”

I said, “I never get to feel good. It’s just different levels of –” (waved my arm expressively.) “I usually do a pretty good job of managing myself anyway.” He agreed, bless him.

That first phrase, “I never get to feel good,” has been preying on my mind. But then, it’s winter. This will pass, and I’ll find it easier to put my focus where it belongs — on what I CAN do, CAN eat, CAN feel, that’s not so — (wave my arm expressively.)

Until then, I’ll keep breathing, keep making my appointments, keep tending my relationships as well as possible, keep up on my documentation, keep on keeping on. As one does.

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My gut has a mind of its own

I take good care of my brain. I work hard at learning more all the time about how to support and foster it in spite of this tedious collage of illnesses. Neurology interests me — always has. Now that it’s so personal an issue, it’s positively compelling. Neurology’s very complex, and hooks into everything — fascinatingly fractal, in the way it repeats the same physiological “phrases” to very different effect in different parts of the body in response to different changes.

I’ve been wrestling with my gut this past year or so. Lately, it looks and feels like someone’s taking a bicycle pump to it and bringing it up a little more every day. When it interferes with your breathing, that’s a lot of bloat!

I’ve found the gastrointestinal (GI) system to be a bit of a trial. It’s very complex, and hooks into everything. There’s no getting away from the endless iterations of its main roles of sensing, transforming, processing, and discarding: at the intracellular level, intercellular level, endocrine level, organ level, and so on.

Some observant part of my brain notes that the same characteristics I find appealing in neurology, are the same ones I find appalling in gastroenterology.

And the gut has so much STUFF in it…

  • The liver parked under the ribs at one side, the spleen at the other, holding half your blood at any one time, right across the top of your abdomen;
  • The endless loops of squirming intestine, stretching and shifting within their blobby webs of mesentery, shoving along several pounds of food residue at any one time along its length;
  • Lymphatic nodes linked in constellations in the shining webs of mesentery and glistening loops of intestine, ready to respond instantly to allergens or pathogens or anything else in your GI tract that could make your body revolt;
  • Major vessels, the abdominal aorta and the vena cava, coursing alongside the spine, apparently apart from the mess, but branching out so thoroughly and so minutely into the organs and the mesentery that the smartest rats in science couldn’t make it through that maze;
  • The tenth cranial nerve, forming an intimate and instant link between your brain and your gut, linking your brain directly to the largest grouping of nerves outside your brain, the nerves that surround and penetrate your organs and your gut, embedded in and supported by that amazing net of connective and fatty tissue, the mesentery;
  • And let’s not even go into the endocrine system, responding minutely — at the level of individual molecules at times — to the constituents in your food, the way you feel about them, what you need them for right then, what else you’re sensing at the time, and even what time of day or year or month it is… then hooking the info back out through the nervous system, cardiovascular system, lymphatic system, and of course the gastrointestinal system.

I was sitting in my Epsom bath today, mulling this over after the battery in my e-book died. I had done the squishing of my legs and arms with the washcloth, and ran it over my neck and back and sides too, but had a terrible time making myself touch my abdomen. It felt just awful. It also felt like it was somewhat detached from me, like it was floating a couple of inches off my back and spine, simply hovering, slightly displaced, in front of the rest of my physical self. Touching it was deeply upsetting in some way, triggering a wordless revulsion.

This is not an unusual experience for CRPSers. We often feel as if the affected parts of our bodies are almost separate from us, or like they belong to someone else, and touching them is — even apart from the allodynia — a crankiness-inducing, unpleasant experience. It’s a perceptual trick the brain plays, probably part of its general effort to manage more ghastliness than it’s really set up to deal with.

One reason I do the Epsom baths (and the stretching, and the activity, and the relaxation meditations, and the aikido/tai chi/qigong, etc.) is to stay on good terms with my body. That whole self-alienation thing is just too wrong, to me — my life is always best when I’m in my skin, so to speak, whether or not my circumstances suck.

Also, to be fair, my body has done nothing wrong; it just got some of the shortest darn straws out there, and it’s doing its mighty best to manage that. It doesn’t deserve my loathing at all. So, I work to keep on good terms with it.

This is probably one reason why I’m still often functional, frequently productive, and can still walk a mile without sitting down to rest on a good day — even after 15 years with this disease on little or no medication (here’s why no CNS depressants like narcotics, here’s why minimal other meds.)

Anyway, there I was in the bath, watching my belly inflate and almost float away, even though I was Epsom bathing (which usually calms my systems down), and realizing I was finding it unbearable to touch the darn thing, even though it was practically in front of me.

I thought, “Neurology is not that hard for me. Why is gastroenterology so impenetrable? Why am I making so little headway on figuring out this stomach stuff, and dealing with so many setbacks? Why do I get these little tailspins of terror about it? What’s going on in… the second largest collection of nerves outside my brain?” I said, as the lightbulb over my head turned on.

I thought, “I’ve been having a lot of trouble with gastroenterology. But I can usually do neurology.”

And the word for the neurology of the gut, ladies and gentlemen, is neurogastroenterology. (Break it down: neuro meaning nerves, gastro meaning stomach, entero meaning inestines, ology meaning study of. Now you have it.)

I’m pretty sure I can do that. I can sure take a stab at it.

First lesson: review the vagus, a.k.a. Cranial Nerve X. It’s a doozy.

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