Remapping and the primitive brain; toolkit bonuses at end

Remapping and the primitive brain are key concepts that come up often for people with chronic pain — though we don’t always know it. These underlie some treatment strategies that seem, at on the surface, anything from absurd to cruel from the perspective of the stressed patient. They also underlie a couple of those chronic misunderstandings between medical people and non-medical people, which are especially painful when the non-medical person is a chronic pain patient. I hope this will go some way towards creating better communication between palliative-care doctors and chronic-pain patients.

First, I’ll go over a few fundamentals. Naturally, I’ll translate the dense stuff into Plain English.

Basic brain structure

The brain has sections which have different jobs, but communicate intensely with the others. It’s impossible to view them either as entirely separate or entirely connected; they’re simultaneously distinct, and inter-linked.

Self-Reflected-in-White-Light_c-gregadunndotcom
Go to http://www.gregadunn.com/self-reflected/self-reflected-gallery/ (opens in new tab) for the full suite of images and shopping opportunities. You’ll be so glad you did. They’re literally mind-blowing.

Providers, I’m going to oversimplify. Be warned.

The hindbrain, or medulla and cerebellum, manage the business of pulse, respirations, and the kind of moment-by-moment activities of survival we don’t even think about. The cerebellum and cerebrum take in information about our environment, check for reflex response, compare it to learned and instinctual information and decide what to do about it. The cerebral cortex is where we start thinking we’re in human territory, because this is where much of our actual thinking takes place, linked into deeper structures in order to turn into words and deeds. Our thinking brain is very much in the minority and, whether it knows it or not, conscious thinking only happens on top of a great deal of unthinking response which has already happened.

That’s the key, right there. The thinking brain is never isolated, even though we sometimes act as if it can operate alone.

Think about the meaning of the word “objective”, then think about how that can possibly apply to thoughts and perceptions channeled by a mind that’s driven by unackowledged forces at inaccessible levels. Objectivity is only an aspiration, not a rational goal, but that’s too often forgotten or ignored.

When scientists forget this, it explains a lot about conventional medicine’s blind spots, certain doctor-patient miscommunications, and many crucial limitations of scientific method.

When the rest of us forget it, we’re already reacting on the basis of the primitive brain’s unthinking push. We lose our capacity for any objectivity right when we need it most.

Remapping

The central nervous system (CNS) is “plastic”, a term in Medical Jargon which means that it morphs and changes to meet the requirements of whatever the CNS thinks is going on.

To be more precise, the CNS doesn’t change the shape of its cord, lumps, and lines, it changes the tasks (and pertinent chemistry) of sections of cord, lump, or line, when ongoing survival seems to call for it. The term for that morphing of purpose and chemistry is “remapping.”

During fetal and childhood development, the brain and spinal cord develop into certain chunks, and those chunks learn to store and pass along information and signal responses in predictable ways. Sounds, colors, sensations, Mom’s face, Dad’s scent, sibling’s voices — these all get processed in, stored for future reference and retrieval. The information finds its home in the CNS while the brain and spine build roads and rails to carry the signals on.

In Medical Jargon, this arrangement of storage and signaling is called the brain map. Unlike most other disciplines, in neurology, the map IS the territory, and mostly it works pretty well.

Therefore, a healthy brain has a normal map of the body, including how it signals normal needs and how to meet them. As the body, signals, and needs all change, the map gets re-drawn, and that’s how the brain and spinal cord get remapped.

This is appropriate in the developing years and in times of great change when we need to adapt. Brain plasticity is important and exists for good reason. However, in chronic pain, especially with central sensitization, it goes overboard.

Thanks to the remapping that happens with chronic pain, the pain signals can’t stop because the chemicals that carry the signals change, so the old pathways aren’t even accessible to them. You know how trains can’t use roads, and cars can’t use railroad tracks? It’s a bit like that. Your spinal cord/brain has blacktop where it used to have rails.

nynjtrackstreet-web

In central sensitization, it means that normal signals — excitement, touch, sound, lights — can get processed, not just as emotions (wow!) or touch (hey!) or sound (oh!) or light (ah!) signals, but as pain signals (ow!), because the brain’s remapping means the normal ways of processing feelings, sensations, etc., have been partly overwritten — sometimes completely erased. It’s all pain, showing up right there in the spine and brain; pure, gruesome pain. It doesn’t come from anywhere in particular; it’s just the essence of pure pain.

Yeah, it sucks.

This is why people with chronic pain and central sensitization get so quickly overwhelmed by things that used to be fun, like music, parties, dancing, socializing, and so on. The inputs, however delightful themselves, just get shunted into the “pain” tracks right in the central nervous system.

monopoly-chance-gotojail
Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, go straight to Pain Jail.

It’s not about not wanting to have fun! It’s about not being able to bear the unnaturally high price, which is so high the fun is usually lost.

When a normal person sees one of us at a party or other event, it would be totally appropriate for them to fall to their knees in admiration and gratitude, because our level of dedication to the events we do attend is truly special.

Not that anyone ever does, nor are they expected to … but it would be perfectly appropriate if they did 🙂

The primitive brain’s role in all this

The primitive brain is one of those terms that changes meaning depending on who’s using it. So, to be clear, I use it here to mean the parts of the brain that don’t use words a lot, and that underlie all the parts that do. Very simple.

Since pain is a survival function, it has deep roots in the primitive brain. This is kind of too bad for us, because once we understand the concept of remapping, we want to learn how to re-remap, so we can push our brains back closer to normal. The catch is, this is all rather intellectual, and pushing back on pain’s remapping means that the re-remapping needs to target a lot of primitive brain, which is primal, not intellectual. The approaches that have been developed reflect this. They’re hard to keep up with, because they don’t always appeal to our higher personality characteristics. (That is, they can be repetitious, trivial-seeming, and dull.)

Let’s take a look at the underlying concepts here, so the ways we communicate with the primitive brain make more sense.

Nonverbal cues

The primitive brain relies heavily on nonverbal cues. Take a look a few paragraphs back, where I was discussing how sensory signals turn into pain. I’ll repeat the section here:

…emotions (wow!) or touch (hey!) or sound (oh!) or light (ah!) signals, but as pain signals (ow!)…

See what I did there? For each type of signal, I made a pertinent sound, and drew attention to that sound by adding an exclamation point. I was totally talking to your primitive brain, there.

Body language

Most of us find we talk more easily with people who don’t have arms crossed or brows lowered. That’s the primitive brain noticing the lack of withdrawn or threatening cues. Body language is 90% of visible communication, just as tone is 90% of audible communication, and it’s rarely noticed by the cortex at all — it’s primitive brain stuff, and humans respond as reflexively as Pavlov’s dogs.

Color

Color (for those who can see it) sends powerful signals to the primitive brain.

Maina at sunset, with masts sticking up and reflecting down, both water and sky streaked with yellow, orange, gold, and purple clouds

Interior decorators may suggest painting the marital bedroom red, because red makes the primitive brain tend to feel passions more strongly and this can improve the sex life.

Some prisons use grey (which is depressing, and slows people down) or pink (which tends to promote calm. The nice theory is, it’s the first color we saw, as light penetrated mother’s stomach wall while we were in the womb. The mean-spirited theory is, it makes grown men feel like little girls; rather than learning to control their impulses, they get emotionally emasculated. Not corrective at all.)

Here’s a classic example of good intentions: In 1991, the administrators at my hospital decided to paint the walls of our HIV unit yellow, in a conscious effort to cheer the environment and counteract the depressing nature of early-90’s existence with HIV. They should have involved caregivers in the choice of shade… after only a year, the one they chose looked just like the serous fluid oozing from a skin ulcer. Still, they meant well.

Movement

horses-content-active

Movement is powerful. The movement we see around us and what we do, ourselves, gets plugged in very deep indeed. Movement involves the most primitive parts of our brains. Because so many of us become limited in our movement due to central pain disease, what movements we do make, and even observe, become even more important, more concentrated.

Re-remapping strategies often involve deliberate movement, combined with some other primitive signal (like seeing or feeling.) This is behind mirror therapy, my Epsom bath routine, mental practice/motor imagery (one article on the science, one explanation of how it works, one article providing charming context outside pain treatment), and other great tools for re-remapping the brain. Even coloring involves movement, and part of what calms the brain down is watching the hand move between the page and the coloring tools (lateral visual movement, not unlike EMDR.) Simple as that.

Very primitive indeed. That’s why these things can be so effective.

Putting several primitive-brain cues together: food, pills

Eating is comforting to the central nervous system for all sorts of reasons, one of which is that taking something, putting it in your mouth, and swallowing, is something we first experienced before we were even born. Also, eating good foods and taking effective medicines makes us more capable and less miserable, because of what happens afterwards to our chemistry — a powerful reinforcement of that primal reward.

The sensation of feeling better is even more compelling when being alive is unbearable at baseline.

Freud went to town over this instinctual action, but he wasn’t completely wrong.

Woman with eyes closed about to bite a cherry
Fabulously oral cherry by Jiri Ruzek.

Putting hand to mouth and swallowing is one of the most powerful primitive-brain signals we habitually engage in. (Realizing this makes me think about how I eat, fidget, and generally do hand-mouth things. I’ll be less mindless about those actions — at least for awhile — and try to give my primitive brain its due.)

This is where we get to one of the things that seems so cruel from the patient’s point of view, but makes perfect sense to the doctor seeing it from the brain’s point of view. I didn’t really get it until mulling over my recent visit, so those of you who’ve seen me saying something different before, I apologize for not having thought it through. They might not be wrong!

This was not easy to write, but for the reader, who doesn’t know what’s coming until you read it, it could be triggering. I want to insert a reminder to my fellow painiacs, for whom black-and-white thinking is very easy to fall into… Take a breath, let it out slowly, and keep in mind that there are no absolutes here, just lots of context and a few guidelines. This can be pretty tough material, but you are way, way tougher.

What we can do about this

Now that we have some idea just how powerful the primitive brain is, how easily it remaps itself once central sensitization takes hold, and how powerful the act of taking and swallowing things that make you feel better is …

Ideally, think long term

We can see why, when doctors don’t want us to ramp up our daily meds when the pain gets worse or to become too regular about taking our breakthrough meds, these things worry them. It’s too easy to program the primitive brain in pain. They see it as powerful signaling that sets the brain up for needing an outside chemical push whenever it starts acting up.

Pain patients come in all sorts, but can broadly be divided into the passive care recipients and active care participants. The latter tend to have much better prognoses and quality of life, but the nature of bitter central pain tends to suck everyone down into the former approach now and then.

Thus, the doctor has no way of knowing if the patient in front of them is currently able to be an active participant and do their disciplines first, or if they’re sufficiently overwhelmed and disabled to just reach for a pill (ow! — mmm!).

None of us is immune from mental exhaustion. However appalling their terminology may be, good docs’ instincts are founded on caring for our greater good, even when we can’t think that far ahead.

Unlike acute pain, life with chronic pain requires us to take more than one approach at the same time. (Insurance doesn’t much respect this fact, which makes it all the harder to manage!) We aren’t expected to recover, unlike those lucky so-and-so’s with ordinary acute pain, so we have to think in terms of having a life while thinking ahead to being able to live the rest of our lives in a bearable state.

This means that all of those primitive-brain approaches and re-remapping tools — eating well, keeping moving, mental rehearsal, coloring, internal arts like meditation and yoga — PLUS individually tailored pharmaceutical therapy and occasional procedures — have to be part of the picture.

Doctors can help us, but they can’t save us; we have to do as much re-remapping as possible, and contribute as little as possible to the pain’s remapping. We aren’t talking about a couple of days or even a couple of years; we have to be able to keep life as manageable as possible for however many years or decades we have left.

The painiac’s barriers to success

Considering how devastating it is to think that we’ll most likely be dealing with this all our lives, our own brain-care requires us not to think about that, because so much perfectly rational despair is waiting when we do.

It requires thinking years ahead on every aspect of our treatment. This is more than usually hard for us to do, becuase thinking too much about this aspect of our future is so counterproductive in other ways.

Nobody’s brains are set up to stay detached and rational when our nerves are running riot with pain signals and our bodies are just exhausted with it. It’s okay if this seems insanely hard, because it IS insanely hard.

This is not a normal situation! We’re rational people stuck in a complex web of relentless, irrational challenges, and we are obliged to prioritize our current survival.  Just do your best! It’s all you can do!

Personally, some days, getting out of bed and doing my tea-snack-pills routine is all I can manage, and I have to be glad of that. (Things could be worse.) I realize that, good as my disciplines (and consequently my perspective) are, they aren’t always up to the job of keeping this mile-high view. Also, I’m a brain-hurt human, and I can’t necessarily keep track of all the myriad things I’m supposed to do.

This is why I seek out and travel to such astoundingly good doctors. I need them to DO what I can’t, as well as to KNOW what I don’t.

Taking more pills and feeling better is powerful retraining. Yet… There are only so many pills in the world, only so many chemical boosts that can do any good at all.

What a set-up!

Built-in pain control and building up tools

On the other hand, remember that we have other tools available to us. For one thing, the brain/spine complex has many ways of managing pain and distress which can be leveraged by a conscious and determined owner of that system. These ways, from the descending inhibitory pathway to oxytocin, endocannabinoids, and endogenous opioids, can be consciously operated and can be nudged by what we take in and do. (Go ahead and google the heck out of those terms. I don’t have enough spoons left to dig up the best links.)

They take practice to master. Not surprisingly, developing these skills can be repetitious, trivial-seeming, and dull.

Just like building a muscle, it takes work to build — rebuild — and keep on building — the ability to counter pain in ways that use what your body has already got.

Letting the primitive brain slide into taking a pill for increased pain as Plan A or B puts the kybosh on those other methods. They wither, like unused muscles.

The pain patient is left with fewer and fewer alternatives, as the years go on.

Yeah, that REALLY sucks.

The one member of the doctor-patient team who isn’t currently losing their mind to disabling pain has the perspective to think ahead, and to realize that NOT retraining the brain to go with “pill as Plan A” is crucial to ongoing survival.

They aren’t always tactful about it, of course (!). They learned it in terms of Pavlov’s dog, and nobody likes being compared to a slobbering animal, so the usual explanation is deeply offensive. I hope they’ll figure that out and start using terms like “primitive brain” and “primal reflexes” and so forth, rather than “operant conditioning”, let alone “Pavlov’s dog.” Sigh.

This conflict of ongoing needs and current distress often winds up painting the doctor-patient team into a corner: the patient’s desperation may lead them to remap their brain to need something it can no longer make for itself, while the doc is not able to communicate real concerns effectively (between their own language gap and the patient’s neurological chaos) but winds up patronizing the patient to a standstill.

Tough situation.

Where to go from here

So, when your doc says, “Don’t pill up,” this is why. They’re worried sick that you might be reaching for pills as the easiest fix — just like most normal people do. Just as they do, when they’ve got an infection or allergies. These days, reaching for a pill to solve a medical problem is the normal thing to do. That’s why it’s a natural assumption for them to make.

I know my readers are a lot better informed and more skilled at self-care than most people. So, if you find yourself having this kind of conversation with your doctor, pause a moment, take a breath, exhale slowly, and explain:

  1. You understand the concern about screwing up your body’s reward-signaling,
  2. You’d like them to know you’ve been using your alternate methods for days/weeks/whatever, and
  3. The pills were the last ditch effort.

That’s exactly what breakthrough meds and med increases are for — last-ditch efforts when our home remedies and personal strategies can no longer meet our minimal requirements.

You may have to say this every time. (I do.) That’s okay; it shows they think of your survival before they remember their manners. These docs are seriously worried that you’ll wind up beyond the ability of modern medicine to do anything for you. (We want docs who worry for us!)

Some of us wind up there anyway, as we’re all well aware from our networks. Our best bet (though there are no guarantees) is to explore, discover, and refine the set of non-pharmaceutical management techniques that offer each of us, individually, the most manageable level of trouble/expense which give us the best results. We’re all neurologically different, so we have to develop our “toolkits” on the basis of what works for ourselves.

Developing our toolkits

To find some of the tools in my toolbox and ideas about how to customize them, check my other blog posts on self-care techniques, sleeping despite all this, and retraining the brain. Also, investigate these intelligent and thoughtful blogs from my international cohort:

  • Elle and the AutoGnome, UK, funny brilliance by a professional researcher;
  • Princess in the Tower, Australia, warm and inexpressibly kind, with not a shred of b.s.;
  • Suzanne Stewart (among others) at National Pain Report, intelligence diligently applied;
  • For the multiply allergic or drug-problematic, Taming the Beast, out of Canada, for more on home management and strategies that are as nontoxic as possible, discussed as pleasantly as possible.

These blogs all discuss strategies that are compatible — or at least not incompatible — with current science.

In the end, what tools matter to you is what tools work for you. You don’t owe anyone any explanations for those. It’s your body, your life, and you who have to face the consequences of every strategy used in your case. Might as well own it.

Other “ancillary” or “alternative” therapies

Once you include strategies and therapies outside your doctor’s bailiwick, it’s not fair to ask the doctor if they think it will help. They’re already doing what they think will help. Conventional mainstream medicine names these techniques with terms that specifically put them off to the side, because that’s where they believe these things belong, so it’s normal and appropriate for conventional practitioners to have a bit of trouble making sense of them.

For the pain patient, these strategies are likely to take more time and attention than conventional care, but only because they are so necessary to living with central disruption and pain.

As long as these therapies don’t disrupt or interfere with your medical care, then the physician’s opinion is not relevant; your experience with that therapy is.

This brings us to a form of intellectual integrity which many well-educated people have trouble with. Ready? Here goes:

  • Others’ belief systems are not relevant to your personal experience of less pain and greater function.
  • Even if the “others” are care providers, and even if their belief systems are based on the current state of our limited and ever-changing model of science.
  • The only proof we need, here at the sharp end of reality, is what kind of good something does, and what kind of bad it doesn’t do, for the only body we’re in. 

 If it helps, doesn’t hurt, and you can access it, success! It’s in your toolkit!

Below is a short table of “alternative” therapies and modalities I’ve used with success, with annotations about what I learned about how to make the most of my benefit from them. (With apologies for the weird formatting.)

Modality Considerations Notes
Nutrition Essential. Our brains are the most susceptible organ in the body to deficits. Air, food, and water underlie everything our brains do. Immune activity in the gut is becoming a hot issue for study, as the results can be multi-system and devastating. Nutrition is the first and most important step, in my view, to managing a life with serious illness. Eliminating or reducing immune triggers, maximizing nutrition within your practical limits, and being able to absorb and process your food, are key to getting your body to work right again. As those of you who’ve checked the science know, nerves can’t work without mitochondria, and mitochondria can’t work without antioxidants. The only known preventive strategy for CRPS is vitamin C in frequent small doses for 2 weeks before surgery and 3 months after surgery or trauma. Vitamin C! So yes, nutrition is the base of everything. This also means, beware! Nutrition can interact and have side effects. Brassicas and soy can deplete the thyroid. Co-Q 10 interacts with Lexapro, a common neurochemical modulator used for central pain and depression. Check with your pharmacist.
Acupuncture The practitioner needs long experience to avoid accidental damage, plus specific training and experience with central sensitization. (I use LAc’s with over 20 years’ experience.) Patient needs realistic expectations and a pragmatic list of attainable goals: anxiety control, sleep/wake improvement, temp/sweat stabilization, digestive support, wound healing, whatever your practical concerns are. Acupuncture is extremely sophisticated. Its methodological groundwork was being laid before my European ancestors even figured out where babies came from. Because of that sophistication, experience counts, because some of what they evaluate is very subtle. Inappropriate acupuncture can make local or central pain worse, so do be mindful and pay attention to the care you’re getting.
Reiki Can be GREAT for pain. It’s more “tunable” than many practitioners realize. If you have dysautonomia or suspect any other form of central disruption/transformation/sensitization, be sure to tell them: “Use SHK, and lots of it. CKR can be bad for central nervous system disruption.” Their likely reply is, “But Reiki goes where it’s needed; it can’t hurt.” The response to that is, “Reiki gets attracted by need. However, more than a touch of CKR can be like warming hands by pouring burning fuel on them. SHK is more stabilizing, and that’s what’s effective. CKR is great for a final ‘coat’ afterwards, but not for the main treatment.” (CKR and SHK are different “flavors” or “types” of Reiki energy.) I figured this out with the assistance of other Reiki 2 practitioners and other centrally sensitized volunteers. It’s absolutely consistent, both for in-person and distance work. Level matters. A Level 1 practitioner normally needs to work on only themselves. If you have Level 1, consider working towards Level 2, as the rewards can be considerable. Level 2, 3, and Master practitioners can send transformative Reiki. Many massage therapists are also Reiki practitioners.
Therapeutic Touch ™ Came out of the nursing profession from a nurse-scientist who got some initial studies funded. Blood tests were so good it was unreal. Usually done by RNs. Usually helpful with pain, digestive problems, mobility, and wound healing. May be available in-hospital, sometimes through private practice. Sometimes massage therapists get cross-certified in TT.
Homeopathy Be prepared for some rudeness if you tell people you use this. Its principles are founded on quantum physics (something called “signal propagation”) and conventional medicine still depends on Newtonian physics, which is 600 years old; predictable, but limited. Anyway, I strongly recommend getting competent, qualified help in working out what works for you. Hypericum perforatum is widely used for nerve pain, but it can go either way for us. It used to help me significantly but now my body flips it about half the time and it makes the pain dig in, so I no longer use it. Ignatia amara can help calm that emotional storm that comes with too much stimulation, surprise, or pain. It also eases my bursts of panic. I get great results consistently. I use Arnica pills for soft tissue trauma (which, for me, is a body-wide event), and heal in 1/4 the time with about 1/6 the pain of what happens when I don’t! Many have great results from Rescue Remedy ™; for me, it just calms my mood, but for my housemate, it brings her blood pressure down from the sky and cuts her pain. We’re all different. As with Reiki, some say that “it can’t hurt”, but that isn’t correct for the centrally sensitized. Keeping logs of how you respond to each remedy is an excellent idea. Your diligence can result in a handful of outstanding remedies that help you enormously and very quickly.
Herbs These are the precursors to conventional mainstream medicine. Therefore, they’re a double-edged sword. Assume that everything interacts with something in conventional medicine (except possibly chamomile); know your interactions for what you use. Everything has side effects, although, with that said, whole herbs tend to buffer their own bad effects better than purified extracts. Freshness matters; potency varies. This means that, if you’re interested in the potentially vast bouquet of beneficial herbal support available, either start when you’re young and healthy with a great teacher (as I did) or find a very experienced practitioner with experience treating central sensitization. Expect to do a lot of homework researching brands and regions and preparations, in your own defense. The market is huge and very aggressive. You are your own guinea pig, so keep track of effects, doses, potency (which you’ll have to figure by color, scent, and taste) if you’re wildcrafting or growing your own. Be wise with your herbs, and they can reward you.

Do your due diligence

As the blunt hints in that table suggest, there is no such thing as a free ride or a guaranteed fix — not even any such thing as “It can’t hurt you!”, especially when central sensitization is part of the picture.

Given all the side effects of our meds, the mistakes by highly qualified physicians, and the errors in surgery, not to mention the rank company of practitioners like Scott Reuben who get rich by urinating in the well of science, these characteristics of not being harmless don’t  distinguish “alternative” methods from “conventional” medicine at all, from the patient’s point of view. It’s all risk, and nobody bears it as much as we do.

The obvious corollary is that there are highly qualified practitioners of these therapies too. There’s no substitute for good training and lots of experience, so look for those who’ve studied their disciplines long and hard, and remain enthusiastic about their field. These are the ones who can provide the best help and guidance.

Another handy fact is that there is a lot more information available on these therapies, at a much greater level of detail, to the determined pain patient. We don’t need medical school access or memberships costing thousands we don’t have, to access articles and reports (not to mention extensive fluff and pretty pictures) about physiotherapy, massage, TT, acupuncture, and any herb you care to name. Good resources for checking interactions with medication and devices are there with a little digging. The vocabulary and style is far more approachable. A bit of common sense and occasionally a friendly nudge from a cohort can help us screen out most of the rubbish.

After that, it’s back to trial and re-trial and lots of notes, the reality of patient-hood, which is based on empiricism out of necessity: WHATEVER WORKS FOR YOU IS WHAT MATTERS, NOT WHAT ANYONE BELIEVES “SHOULD” WORK.

As with medicine and surgery, the final sanity check and the final decision is up to you, the patient. It’s always up to you. 

May our brains and spinal cords become more stable, less reactive, and ever closer to normal!

Share this article:

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.

Share this article:

The weather is flailing, and so am I

On average, it takes 2-5 days to adjust to a change in the weather. This is part of the fun and excitement of CRPS, dysautonomia, fibromyalgia, and all those lovely dysregulating diseases of pain and neurological shenanigans.

New Englanders like to say, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.” Clouds and sunshine chase each other swirlingly across the sky like teenagers at a party. Precipitation, in one form or another, is bound to happen at least twice a week.

However, up until recently, there was a pattern in the seeming chaos. October hosted the last of the 50-degree weather, December saw the first few inches of snow that really stuck, January and part of February were bloody cold, March was named Mud Month for good reason.

Bar the occasional storm front, when the barometer plunges like necklines at a Red Carpet party, I could live with that. Once it’s fall, it’s fall; once it’s winter, it stays winter, until it gets muddy, and eventually the glorious summer blesses us all and reminds us why we put up with the rest.

Not now.

Over the winter holiday season, the naked (???) earth finally got dusted with snow. That quickly turned to sleet and then it froze (!!!). There were a couple of warm spells which didn’t melt the packed ice, just packed it further… we spent alternate days staggering over frozen rucks and through soggy mud, to try to maintain the dirt driveway.

Sunday, it was pushing 50 (like me), and raining cats and dogs; the ice finally melted — except for a few sneaky patches that merely absorbed the color of the sand so they could lurk, invisible, and slap down the unwary walker. Then it went down to well below freezing, and I got slapped down on a sneaky patch of ice because I forgot to wear friction doohickies on my boots. Last night, guess what? It snowed! We got almost 2 inches and we might get more.

I’m begging the weather gods to let it stay.

In the last few weeks, temperatures have seesawed between 20 degrees Fahrenheit above normal to 10 degrees below normal for this time of year (when it’s supposed to be simply bloody cold and frequently snowy.) Sometimes, we see that difference happen in one day.

So, if it takes 2-5 days to adjust to a weather change, and the weather is changing every day or three, what is a poor body supposed to do? Mine is whining. It’s just curling up in the chair and whimpering gently and steadily. It’s working so hard at handling the weather changes that showers and shampoos are something that happen to other people; there is no way this blood pressure and neurological system can take that much direct stimulus. A few swipes with a washcloth, a scarf or hat over the unwashed hair — it will have to do.

I still have to snap the leash on and drag this body outside at least once a day, but it’s duty, not fun. I’m sure I’m better for it afterwards — but I still climb straight back into the squishy chair, and let my body whimper for a bit.

The meteorologists on TV refer often to “the El Niño” effect, which makes me laugh. I’m pushing 50, remember? I’ve been through a lot of El Niño years, on both coasts. This isn’t El Niño. This is a huge bloody shift in the climate, and I don’t know how long it’ll last or where it will leave us.

I just hope it finds some consistency from day to day. As long as I have a few days to adjust, I’ll be fine. All I want is time to do something besides listen to my cells whimper!

Share this article:

Of Mice, Medicine, and Malefactors

Older Brother and his wife, Aunt Krusty, sent me a fabulous little doohicky from a medieval town they visited. It’s a brooch of a common design element used in the Middle Ages: a tabby cat with two tails and fabulous eyebrows offering a mouse, with the legend, “visis mu” — “here’s the mouse.”

Pewter pin of tabby cat as described in text.
Close inspection shows both letter “s”s to be upside down. I’ve known a few artisans, and they like making people twist their heads around. Besides, that’s relevant. You’ll see why.

The enclosed card contains the usual wonderfully vague, semi-academic wording saying that animals with two tails (no mention of fabulous eyebrows) are signifiers of evil forces at work, but beyond that, nobody really knows what this means.

I thought some academics kept cats…?

My lovely polyglot friend Sylvie does. Sylvie is a CRPS compatriot who lost a frightening percentage of weight late last year, from which she’s still recovering. Her cat Nala has become a serial killer of the entire species Rodentia, bringing her grisly accomplishments to lay at Sylvie’s feet — or couch, or pillow — with startling frequency. Naturally, they aren’t always quite dead.

Pinto cat biting into white mouse on a lawn.
Not Nala, but a kindred spirit. Photo Tomasz Sienicki @ Wikimedia Commons.

Cats don’t have thumbs, so they don’t really get it about cooking and cupboards. All Nala knows is that Sylvie obviously needs to work on her hunting skills, but in the meantime, Nala can at least help her fatten up.

Also, cats tend to gatomorphize, just as those of us who are close to them tend to anthropomorphize. Nala has no idea that mice, gophers, shrews, and moles do Sylvie no good at all; that, on the contrary, they’re upsetting, messy, and potentially infectious. Nala thinks they’re good, and Nala cares for Sylvie, so they must be good for Sylvie.

She honestly believes that, with all her furry, loving little heart. “Visis mu! Have this great mouse!” So the slaughter continues.

Sylvie’s garden blooms, but her house is an abattoir at times. This is not a bad metaphor for explaining one of the more difficult aspects of being under a doctor’s care.

Most doctors really mean well. Becoming a physician takes an enormous amount of work, which requires great commitment to complete. It’s a hard job with ridiculous hours, especially for the first few years.

That doesn’t mean they’re all bright or gifted or even humane. It just means they believe in the value of medicine and surgery, enough to spend a decade or more learning to do it.

Line drawing of doctor going over an x-ray with patients.
There is much care and dedication among many doctors.

Doctors are intensely, let’s say, socialized to stay within the parameters of accepted practice. It keeps them out of trouble, although it may also keep them from true excellence at times.

Mostly, they love those parameters. They love having guidelines. They are truly, madly, deeply convinced of the value of the meds and procedures that they’re trained in. It doesn’t help that, if they put a foot wrong outside of those parameters and things don’t go well, they can lose everything. They are heavily incented, so to speak, to stay inside whatever they understand their parameters to be.

And, of course, the peer pressure is enormous.
And, of course, the peer pressure is enormous.

Now, this is tough for CRPS patients. There is so much variation from one CRPSer to the next, that there are NO established treatment parameters that meet the medical gold standard of being consistent, repeatable and reliable over a majority of patients.

None. Nada. Zilch. There is not one thing that consistently works well for most of us — at least nothing that comes from a bottle or an operating room. Activity, rest, hydration and nutrition all seem to be key, but even their benefits are hugely variable, and you rarely hear about them from physicians.

For a while, it was thought that COX-2 inhibitors combined with membrane stabilizers, came close to being a semi-magical bullet. (Gabapentin/ Neurontin, pregabalin/Lyrica, and so on, are known to most patients as anti-seizure meds, but many healthcare providers call them membrane stabilizers.)

Then it turned out that the Dr. Scott Reuben, the physician who popularized that treatment, was making the numbers up (here, reported to his colleagues and here, reported to science fans.)

Old poster of a show called, "Pinocchio, the tale of a marionette"
He was so busy being a puppet of the drug companies paying him, that he forgot what it means to be real.

COX-2 inhibitors were given a general thumbs-down over cardiac effects (which many people with chronic CRPS have enough trouble with anyway) and, as peri-surgical meds, did not live up to Reuben’s promise that subsequent chronic pain would be less.

Ironically, it had already been established that 500 mg of vitamin C two or three times daily for 3 months after surgery does have significant demonstrated benefit, reducing the incidence of CRPS – the most intractable and severe form of chronic pain – by 35-80%, depending on the extremity, extent of injury, and probably the degree of compliance. Moreover, vitamin C is very cheap, as well as very effective. (See extensive links list below.)

The anti-seizure meds, unfortunately for pain patients, did not get removed from first-line treatment.

By then, unfortunately, whole nations (Great Britain and the Netherlands, take a bow) had adopted Reuben’s corrupt recommendations for first-line treatment. It takes a lot more effort to undo that level of adoption than it does to hoodwink an entire sub-economy of peer reviewers and medical specialists, apparently.

The arrogantly reputable journals that accepted his work, and subsequently published other work which was based unquestioningly on his false results, are still trying to live it down. What’s interesting is that other doctors couldn’t replicate his results, so he was the only one publishing these great data… yet journals and physicians continued to publish and follow his recommendations. I do hope the journals revised their “peer-review” process to include more actual, I don’t know, reviewing, perhaps by peers.

Old cartoon of Pinocchio sitting on a pile of books, with a book open on his lap.
It took a lot of people to permit and perpetuate Reuben’s false reports. They are not innocent.

It could take decades to undo much of his damage, and meanwhile, the advancement of treatment has been down the wrong track for years, while other more appropriate avenues of treatment have been ignored or even forgotten.

So, millions of CRPS patients are being first-lined with truly obnoxious meds with iffy benefits and ghastly side-effects, rather than being examined as individuals, and assessed as to whether:

  • neurotransmitter support, most provably with antidepressants, would be more appropriate, given disease-related onset of affective symptoms (antidepressants), sleep problems (tricyclics), or dysautonomia (SNRI);
  • a short, hard attack of narcotics and aggressive PT would answer in the case of a hardy, active, or young person;
  • a proprietary or tech-based treatment, like TCMI or Calmare, are indicated for those who show active neuroplasticity or respond well to electrical stim; or
  • this person is a good candidate for ketamine protocols of one kind or another, some of which are no more toxic than membrane stabilizers.
  • it might be reasonable to try a more experimental approach which has demonstrated significant promise, notably magnesium infusions, immune globulin therapy, or temporary immune suppression.

Oops… Doctors, as a group, forgot to look at the patients in their excitement to have a designated treatment protocol. “Visis mu! Take this mouse – it’s government approved!

If you've worked with government agencies, you know why they're laughing.
If you’ve worked with government agencies, you know why they’re laughing.

But the doctors doing the offering really think this is a great idea. That’s what the guidelines say, after all, and they are evidence-based – except that that evidence was cooked.

While anti-seizure meds do work very well for some, starting with them reflexively is not reasonable: the cost-benefit profile is worse than most of the other potential first-line alternatives, due to high rates of side effects and comparatively unimpressive rates of usefulness.

Using them as a first-line treatment delays more effective, lower-cost treatment for many people in horrific pain, and, between the delay and the cognitive and neurologic side effects of this class of drugs, causes greater impairment (with higher associated costs) in far too many. It should be a second or even third line treatment, if you go by the evidence that has remained credible – taking a back seat to less fraught (not perfect, but still less problematic) therapeutic agents and interventions.

But the docs who lean on it really think it’s great.

sketch of excessively happy doctor running with a hypodermic needle
“Visis mu! Visis mu! Look – it’s a great mouse!”

Reminds me of my previous pain doctor, a competent technician with a bedside manner directly related to the patient’s appearance. He has a good reputation in his area – which tells you what a lot of rubbishy practitioners there were in the area.

He wanted to shove into the neck of my spinal column a couple of widgets which were the size of Starbucks drinking straws – you know, those really fat ones that you could suck a steak through, if it’s tender enough. Two of those, jammed into a six-inch length of a space that didn’t have enough room for one, and which – as we now know – was already inflamed in much the same way that the spinal cord of someone with a spinal cord injury is inflamed.

He liked it because shoving surgical hardware into other people’s bodies is what he does best, and these widgets have embedded electrodes which could zap the pain signal at the spinal root of my arms and he thought it would work really well and I had the right psych profile for it and this was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

"Visis mu! Visis mu! This is a truly excellent mouse which I am shoving smugly up your spine!"
“Visis mu! Visis mu! This is a truly excellent mouse which I am shoving smugly up your spine!”

It was a nice idea, and, again, this particular thing works spectacularly well for some people. For me, not so much. In fact, it was a disaster. It was truly worse than the CRPS pain, which takes some doing. The equipment trial still gives me spasms due to the mere memory of the staggering physical trauma it entailed.

Truly, each of us is unique.

Once he realized that I couldn’t accept his mouse, his whole manner changed. Just like a sulky cat, nursing his disappointment seemed a lot more important to him than finding something that would help me.

How could I be so callow and blind that I couldn’t appreciate this great mouse he wanted to give me? There’s just no helping some people! His neglect and disaffection was so damaging I had to fire him and move on to the excellent Dr. Richeimer at USC Pain Center, 4 hours’ drive away and worth the two-night stay in the armpit of LA.

Another dear friend, the angelically kind M, has roughly 3 dozen anaphylactic reactions a year. She is so hyper-reactive to so many things that driving past a town with the wind in the wrong direction could be the death of her. 3 dozen anaphylactic reactions a year, and she’s in her fifties now. Yes, amazing.

She saw a young cardiologist, who did what young cardiologists do: he threw upon her a huge, bloody gopher, covered in prickles and gore. “Your heart is dicky! This could kill you in a year! Visis mu, I can save you! Isn’t this exciting?”

Sepia-toned photo of a very dead, gutted gopher.
I processed this image out of respect for X’s exquisite sensibilities.

Personally, I think the appropriate thing to do is to pick that gopher up and shove it down his throat, but when a patient does it, it’s assault and battery with a biohazardous weapon.

The cardiologist, naturally, is doing exactly what he was trained to do and is wildly excited to have such a thrilling case and such interesting news. She, who already faces death on a weekly basis, should clearly get wound up about this because it might kill her if she doesn’t.

Gopher poking head out of hole, looking grumpy, with long claws and nasty teeth.
“Visis mu! This is a glorious mou — er, gopher! Check out those charming teeth, those tiny claws, that helpful expression! Awesome!

A brickbat? A muzzle? What do you think? Words simply fail. All I can think of is applying to him the kind of cat that has nine tails. It’s not a good way to model compassion, let alone tact, however.

As for me, I have to pick a primary doc for myself. My old one retired from private practice, and I miss him, because I could just walk in and look at him and he’d know.

I’m just thrilled at the prospect of training someone new, who will be a generalist treating the peripheral issues of someone with an incredibly peripheral-intensive disease. There will to be many rounds of “visis mu”, as he comes up to speed. And, since it’s all well-intended, I have to find a way to accept one or two mice as graciously as possible. One can only recoil so often before they decide they can’t treat you.

"Visis mu! I care for you, so let me do this wildly inappropriate thing, because I’m too rushed to think things all the way through!"
“Visis mu! I care for you, so let me do this wildly inappropriate thing, because I’m too rushed to think things all the way through!”

They mean well. They really do.

I never have figured out what to do when a cat, with every evidence of caring attention, brings me a mouse. I try to be nice about it, and that’s the best I can do.

Obit
Sadly, Sylvie’s furry little caregiver, Nala, departed this earth for the Happy Hunting Grounds. By a series of flukes, Sylvie wound up with a rescue cat, Filou (meaning roughly “brat” or “mischief-maker”), who has taken over her care with great enthusiasm — and much less bloodshed.

Links

Grouped by subject.

Sylvie’s blog on “neuroalgodystrophie”, mostly French but some bilingual French/English: http://sylvieghyselscrpsdrc.wordpress.com/

I’m shielding my friend M for safety reasons, but I can point you to a blog on managing immune suppression and chronic pain with few drugs and much natural care: http://www.tamingthebeast.ca/

Scott Reuben’s villainy, as reported to colleagues in Anesthesiology News:
http://www.anesthesiologynews.com/ViewArticle.aspx?d_id=21&a_id=12868
And in Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-medical-madoff-anesthestesiologist-faked-data/

Vitamin C after surgery or trauma, value established before Reuben’s fall:
From 1999, in The Lancet: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(99)03059-7/abstract
From 2002, in Belgian orthopedic periodical: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12584978
From 2007, in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery: http://jbjs.org/content/89/7/1424.long

CRPS at the top of the McGill Pain Index:
https://elleandtheautognome.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/mcgill-pain-index-crps-and-fibromyalgia/

UK treatment protocols for GPs treating CRPS: https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/sites/default/files/documents/complex-regional-pain-full-guideline.pdf

Netherlands treatment protocols for treating CRPS: http://www.posttraumatischedystrofie.nl/pdf/CRPS_I_Guidelines_patient_version.pdf

Relatively useful treatments for CRPS:
Most suggestions are pulled from the current IASP recommendations for diagnosis and treatment of CRPS or the pivotal work of Dr. R. J. Schwartzman, Dr. van Rijn, and Dr. Breuhl (part of the team that developed the IASP guidelines), with updates from recent science available on PubMed.

Dr. Robert J. Schwartzman’s seminal works..
Outstanding primer on CRPS and what it can do in Systemic Complications of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome
Neuropsychological deficits associated with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome

Dr. van Rijn’s Spreading of complex regional pain syndrome: not a random process

IASP current recommendations: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/pme.12033/full#pme12033-sec-0023
Simplified diagnostic tool using IASP criteria: http://biowizardry.info/wp/2014/12/the-hidden-simplicity-of-diagnosing-complex-regional-pain-syndrome/

The authors have their blind spots and biases, of course, so researching any therapies that sound interesting is a good use of time.

The National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health (U.S.) is an outstanding clearinghouse of articles from peer-reviewed scientific journals: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=complex+regional+pain+syndrome
Just add the term of the treatment you’re interested in to the MeSH term, “complex regional pain syndrome”, to maximize useful hits.

Share this article:

Prelude to winter canning recipes

Don’t you love the change of season? Especially here in Middle Cali, where there’s a hint o’ green to mark the second of our two seasons — Drought and Mold.

But seriously… I just had my first blueberry-clove shake in awhile, and boy am I glad I remembered about them. I’m actually stringing a thought or two together. Not eloquently, but let’s not be fussy, ok?

It’s worth noting that I’m staying off social media until I’ve finished a couple of very important projects. I’m using my brain time in a highly focused manner.

Why? Because the seasons are changing, the barometer is bouncing around like a honeymooner’s pillow, the solar radiation (between eclipse, sunspot the size of Jupiter, and X-class flares) is doing the hesitation waltz ALL over my nervous system, and my otherwise lovely partner is genuinely addicted to TV so I have that constant, impersonal nag grating against my brain.
Sketch of brain, with bits falling off and popping out, and a bandaid over the worst
If I weren’t so well-equipped with irony and sarcasm, I’d be howling like a princess with a split nail right before her prom date.

So I remembered about my blueberry clove shakes. This reminded me that I need to prepare for the REALLY hard times that winter brings. And that made me think that there are a few principles to keep in mind for my dietary framework:

  • Vegetables. Lots of healthy vegetables.

    I have that covered for emergencies already: vegetable juice with one of those thought-out “super green” organic powders (my choice is Garden of Life’s Perfect Food.)
  • Anthocyanins in ridiculously strong doses. This is key for my brain function. Huge.
  • Something for bad pain.
  • Something for bad pain with a different protein profile, to lower the risk of developing an allergy.
  • Immune support. Winter, right? Virus heaven.

Brains which are under siege need appropriate saturated fats. I know, I know, we’re told they’re bad. Back up a bit and take a look at that, because it doesn’t hold up to closer inquiry. What we don’t need are INappropriate saturated fats, which, admittedly, are most of the ones in the grocery store.

Chocolate, coconut oil, organic palm oil, and pastured butter are appropriate fats. These are well within the kinds of foods we have been eating for thousands of years, if not longer.

One reason why a bite of something fatty is like an instant lift. The saturated fat goes right to the brain’s pleasure centers. The brain knows what it needs, and we’re wired to like it.
glee
It’s up to us to use appropriate forms of fat, which our bodies can reliably use.

When I’m fighting off a virus, I crave raw coconut, coconut oil, coconut butter, or coconut milk with a gnawing passion. I’m old enough to do what my body tells me to. Interestingly, studies are coming to light showing that just the coconut oil has real benefit for fighting off viruses, among other things. Imagine what we’ll find in the rest of the nut, one day.

For pain, I find that half a tablespoon of 100% grass-fed/pastured butter is better than a pain pill. (It cuts the pain dramatically but doesn’t make me goofy at all.) It doesn’t always last for more than a few hours, but there are no side-effects that aren’t healthy: it makes my heart stronger, helps stabilize my immune system, and reduces my tendency to pack on weight. I’ve found this to be consistently true over the years, and, since it doesn’t match our expectations of dairy fat, I checked the science.

For a fairly extensive and science-supported discussion, look here. I’ll provide some highlights.

100% pastured bovine fat, of any kind, is such an effective anti-inflammatory that it can reverse heart and vascular damage. I’m not sure why it helps moderate my weight, but I suspect it has to do with cleaning the metabolic pathways.

Conventionally-raised or grain-finished cattle are sensitive to grain, as a species, so they have ongoing low-level immune responses to their feed (even without the steroids and antibiotics normally used in beef and milk production.)
feedlot-NRCSAZ02094_-_Arizona_(471)(NRCS_Photo_Gallery)
Naturally, the histamine outfall, metabolic garbage, and fats get stored in their flesh, milk, and fat.

That’s how animal bodies work — a lot of stuff gets concentrated in our flesh and stored in our fat, and if what went into us isn’t right, what gets stored in us isn’t right, either. That’s why people pay so much for the grass-fed stuff.

Now you know 🙂

Getting pastured butter is not hard. In Ireland, grass is cheaper than grain, and (unlike New England or Wisconsin) it’s available nearly year-round.

Gorgeous black and white Frisian cows grazing deep green grass with colorful, healthy fields patchworked down to the edge of a body of water.
Breathtaking shot of Irish cows from Richard Webb

Next time you’re at a major supermarket, grab yourself a block of Kerrygold butter and try a slice on some non-inflammatory food, like a dish of steamed veggies.

Go on, try it…

Now you know what’s behind the recipes I’m going to post next.

Share this article:

Imaginative experience and rebuilding the brain

In 1986, the course of neurologic treatment changed forever when Mark Block, one severely spine-injured young man, chose “imp-possible” over “impossible” and, every day, spent hours imagining how it would be to walk again, imagining his “wires” getting hooked back up again, riding a wave of inner certainty that can only be called a gift.

 

He mentally rehearsed endlessly. Day after day after week after month.

 

And then, months into his care, he told the nurse, “Watch this,” and made his foot twitch. The first nurse dismissed it as a spasm. The second or third nurse got the doctor.

 

The doctor stood over the foot — really close — and said, “Do it again.” Twitch.

 

“Again.” Twitch.

 

“Again.” Kick.

 

One of the great moments in medicine.

 

Upon discharge, he walked out of the hospital.

Some of the meditations from my pain psychologist are visualizations. They’re made for a mass audience, not for people with chronic illness generally or CRPS specifically, so a certain amount of tolerance with the language is required. (At one point, the narrator says, after a pregnant pause, “Looking good.” Oh for heaven’s sake.)

Fortunately, she’s dropped pearls of wisdom about what’s important in these exercises, so I’m (naturally) mulling over a new set of scripts which attain those ends a wee bit more gracefully. (Of course, the files will be freely available to download.)

The key point is, it’s important to imagine what it feels/looks/smells/sounds like to be really well, really functional, really active, really smart again. Here’s the lowdown:

  • It’s not just a set of images, it’s a multisensory experience that I imagine as clearly as a good memory.
  • It’s important to do so vividly and frequently.
  • It’s important to think of imaginative experience as a good working hypothesis, rather than a hopeless quest or pointless daydreaming.

That’s key. Making it seem real, and not dismissing it afterwards. Over and over again.

That’s how the brain is persuaded — molecule by molecule, link by link, cell by cell — to give up its current structure, which pins so much of the neuro-anatomical, neuro-chemical and neuro-endocrine dysfunction in place.

Then, in many cases — and with suitable support from nutrition, psychological care and physical activity — it’s possible to reverse-engineer a healthier, more functional neuro-setup.

It takes time. It takes dogged persistence. It takes a vivid imagination — which can be developed, if it’s not already there. (Like getting to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.) Last but not least, it takes a smidgen of luck.

The imaginative experiences, if all goes well, help your neurological structure leap the chasm between what it is and what it should be. It’s an enormous leap of faith to get started, let alone keep going for as long as it takes to rewire such an astoundingly complex structure.

Of course, inner resistance and outer events are liable to leap out and knock us off track, because that’s what they do… and we have to find ways to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and get back on track as soon as possible.

It’s a huge job, inside and out — all that leaping.

Trapeze_artists_1890

But it’s not impossible.

I’ve been mulling experiences that I can imagine failing to do with my current body, but remember doing with my healthy one.  I think I’ll write them out (word-painting at its most precise) and build really great imaginative experiences to come back to, again and again.

Running; sailing; riding; studying; traveling; writing complex books; lecturing on neurology, pain, and healing — you know that’s what I’m thinking about.

What would your imaginative experiences be? What would you leap the chasm for? What could you immerse yourself in, week after week, month after month, maybe year after year, for the chance of pulling yourself up to it?

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? I have a feeling my list will change with time. As I sit with these imaginative experiences, I’ll see which ones really keep on giving, and which ones were better in theory than practice — and, of course, I’ll find the one I haven’t thought of yet, which will turn out to be key.

At the moment, the hard part is coming back to reality afterwards. That can really suck. But there are ways to deal with that — instant distraction, for instance — and the more I think it over, the more I think it’s worth it.

Share this article:

Putting together the team

I saw  my counselor this morning and told her I was thinking of running the marathon. She waited for me to go on, then said, “Wait, you’re not laughing. You’re serious!”

I waved a hand generously and said, “Take a moment to have your reaction…”

It was priceless.

After talking it over a bit, she began to get behind it, rather  breathlessly but with real glee.

I saw my PT just now, for our first conversation since his rather cryptic reply to my email. He doubled my treadmill time (up to 10 minutes from 5), and said without preamble, in his cooly unflappable way, “That marathon idea of yours? It’s going to be slow, it’s going to be hard work, but I think we can do it. It’s a good goal.”

I nearly burst with relief and delight.

He set a 5-mile limit on my exercise over the coming 2 weeks of my vacation, then checked and said, “You’re  going to come back and say, ‘He-e-ey, I did 15!”

Finally… a PT I don’t have to train.

Last, I saw my rheumatologist, who laughed in a pleased fashion and said, “I’m glad you’ve got a good PT for this. That makes my job a lot easier.” Didn’t turn a hair.

I’m seeing my primary care doc and my pain doc on Thursday.  As for data (I am a geek; gotta have data!) I have current baseline levels for all basic chemistries, immune globulins, and a complete blood count, plus vitamin C and D. I have cortisol reports from when I was in adrenal exhaustion.

I’d like a baseline cortisol test now, and talk over what other stress/adaptation/compensation markers we could be tracking and how often.

I might have to shop around to different labs to keep in budget, if insurance can’t be persuaded to cover the lab-based data collection, or if I can’t get it covered some other way.

I’m dead serious about not hurting myself. I’m also dead serious about going for this. In any case,  we might as well collect data, so if nothing else, we’ll have one damn good case study to publish.

See you on the trails.

Share this article:

Pain rating scales that describe reality

I’m filling out paperwork for these assessments. It’s a lot of homework, especially since they didn’t provide anything I could edit in softcopy. (Wait… how long have computers and the internet been around? Doesn’t the ADA require hospitals to provide access? … ok, never mind. Anyway.)

 
I got to the usual 1-10 pain rating scale and my gorge rose. That’s so irrelevant to my life now that I can’t even throw a dart at it.

 
Between my self-care strategies and spectacular mental gymnastics, the level of what most people would experience as “pain” is a secret even from me, until it’s strong enough to blast through the equivalent of 14 steel doors, each three inches thick. At that point, the numeric level is off the charts.

 
What’s useful and relevant is how well I can cope with the backpressure caused by the pain reflexes and the central and peripheral nervous system disruption this disease causes.

 
You can read on without fear, because for one thing, it’s not contagious, and for another, your experience of pain — whether you have CRPS or not — is uniquely your own. This is mine, as it has changed over the years…

 

Step 1: Acute CRPS, with otherwise normal responses

My first pain rating scale, just a few years into the disease’s progress, was suitable for a normal person’s experience. My experience of pain was still pretty normal (apart from the fact that it didn’t know when to stop):

Mental impact

Physical changes

0

 

No pain at all.

 

1

 

Hurts when I stop and look.

 

3

3

Neither looking for it nor distracted.

 

5

5

Noticeable when concentrating on something else. 

Nausea, headache, appetite loss.

7

7

Interferes with concentration. 
Drop things, grip unreliable.
8

8

Difficult to think about anything else. 

Trouble picking things up.

9

9

Makes concentration impossible. 

Interferes with breathing pattern.  No grip.

10

Can’t think, can’t speak, can’t draw full breath, tears start –  or any 3 of these 4.

Unrated even numbersindicate a worse level of pain than prior odd number, which does not yet meet the criteria of the following odd number.

Note that weakness is only loosely related to pain.  I drop things and have trouble picking things up at times when I have little or no pain.  However, as pain worsens, physical function consistently deteriorates.

Notice how the scale ties the rating numerals to physical and mental function. This is crucial, for two reasons — one personal and one practical:

 
– Personally, I can’t bear to let misery get the better of me for long. Tying the numbers to specific features keeps the awful emotional experience of pain from overwhelming me. Making the numbers practical makes the pain less dramatic.

– Practically, in the US, health care is funded by a complex system of insurance. Insurance companies are profit-driven entities who are motivated not to pay. They don’t pay for pain as such, only for limits on function. This makes my pain scales excellent documentation to support getting care paid for, because MY numbers are tied to explicit levels of function. (Hah! Wiggle out of that, you bottom-feeders.)

 

Step 2: Early chronic CRPS, with altered responses

My next was upwardly adjusted to describe learning to live with a higher level of baseline pain and noticeable alterations in ability:

Mental impact

Physical changes

3

3

Neither looking for it nor distracted.  Forget new names & faces instantly.

Cool to touch @ main points (RCN both, dorsal  R wrist, ventral L wrist). Hyperesthesia noticeable.  .

5

5

Interferes with concentration.  Anxiety levels rise.  Can’t retain new info. Can’t follow directions past step 4. May forget known names.

Nausea, headache, appetite loss.  Grip unreliable.  Hyperesthesia pronounced. Color changes noticeable.

7

7

Absent-minded.  White haze in vision.  Can’t build much on existing info.  Can follow 1 step, maybe 2.  May forget friends’ names.

Drop things.  Cold to touch, often clammy. Arms & palms hurt to touch.

8

8

Speech slows.  No focus. Behavior off-key. Can’t follow step 1 without prompting.

Can’t pick things up; use two hands for glass/bottle of water. 

9

9

Makes concentration impossible.  Hard to perceive and respond to outer world.

Interferes with breathing pattern.  No grip. Everything hurts.

10

Can’t think, can’t speak, can’t stand up, can’t draw full breath, tears start –  or any 3 of these.

Notice how specific I am about what general tasks I can complete — following instructions, lifting things. These are the fundamental tasks of life, and how do-able they are is a fairly precise description of practical impairments.
 

Step 3: Established chronic CRPS

And my third changed to describe living with more widespread pain, a higher level of disability, and — most tellingly — a physical experience of life that’s definitely no longer normal:

Mental impact

Physical changes

3

3

Neither looking for it nor distracted.  Forget new names & faces instantly.

Cool to touch @ main points (RCN both, dorsal  R wrist, ventral L wrist, lower outer L leg/ankle, R foot, B toes). Hyper/hypoesthesia. Swelling.

5

5

Interferes with concentration.  Anxiety levels rise.  Can’t retain new info. Can’t follow directions past step 4. May forget known names.

Nausea, headache, appetite loss.  Grip unreliable.  Hyper/hypoesthesia & swelling pronounced. Color changes. Must move L leg.

7

7

Absent-minded.  White haze in vision.  Can’t build on existing info.  Can follow 1 step, maybe 2.  May forget friends’ names.

Drop things. Knees buckle on steps or uphill.  Cold to touch, often clammy. Shoulders, arms & hands, most of back, L hip and leg, B feet, all hurt to touch. L foot, B toes dark.

8

8

Speech slows.  No focus. Behavior off-key. Can’t follow step 1 without prompting.

Can’t pick things up; use two hands for glass/bottle of water.  No stairs.

9

9

Makes concentration impossible.  Hard to perceive and respond to outer world.

Interferes with breathing pattern.  No grip.  No standing.  Everything hurts.

10

Can’t think, can’t speak, can’t stand up, can’t draw full breath, tears start –  or any 3 of these.

 

The CRPS Grading Scale

The other scales measure the wrong things now. Asking me about my pain level is bogus. It would have the asker in a fetal position, mindless; is that a 5 or a 10? Does it matter?

 
I need to avoid thinking about depressing things like my pain and my disability. I focus pretty relentlessly on coping with them and squeeezing as much of life into the cracks as possible — on functioning beyond or in spite of these limitations.

 
The fourth rating scale is much simpler than its predecessors. It’s based, not on level of pain or disability, but on the degree to which I can compensate for the disability and cope past the pain. Therefore, this rating scale remains meaningful, because it describes my actual experience of life.

Mental impact

Physical changes

A. Coping gracefully

(baseline)

Track to completion, baseline memory aids sufficient, comprehend primary science, think laterally, mood is managed, manner friendly.

Relatively good strength and stamina, able to grasp and carry reliably, knees and hips act normal, nausea absent to minimal, pulse mostly regular.

B. Coping roughly

B

Completion unrealistic, extra memory aids required and still don’t do it all, comprehend simple directions (to 3-4 steps), think simply with self-care as central concern, unstable mood, manner from prim to edgy to irritable.

Moderate strength and stamina, grip unreliable and muscles weaker, balance goes in and out, knees and hips unreliable, nausea and blood sugar instability alter type and frequency of intake, occasional multifocal PVCs (wrong heartbeats) and mild chest discomfort.

C. Not coping well

C

Hear constant screaming in my head, see white haze over everything, likely to forget what was just said, focus on getting through each moment until level improves, manner from absorbed to flat to strange, will snap if pushed.

Muscle-flops, poor fine and gross motor coordination, major joints react stiffly and awkwardly, restless because it’s hard to get comfortable, unstable blood sugar requires eating q2h, bouts of irregularly irregular heartbeat.

D. Nonfuntional

D

Unable to process interactions with others, suicidal ideation.

Unable either to rest or be active. No position is bearable for long.

There is no Grade F. Did you notice that? As long as I have a pulse, there is no F, which stands for Failure.

In the words of that divine immortal, Barrie Rosen, “Suicide is failure. Everything else is just tactics.”

So what’s the point of all this?

Documenting our own experience in terms that are meaningful and appropriate advances the science. The treatment for this disease is stuck in the last century in many ways, but that’s partly because it’s so hard to make sense of it. The better we track our experience with it, the better outsiders can make sense of it.

 
Since studies, and the funding for them, come from those who don’t have the disease, this is the least — and yet most important — thing that we can do to improve the situation for ourselves and those who come after us.
 

This isn’t a bad snapshot of the natural history of my case, either. Understanding the natural history of a disease is a key element of understanding the disease. Imagine if we all kept pain rating scales, and pooled them over the years. What a bitingly clear picture would emerge.

 
I’ve never sat back and looked at all of these pain rating scales together. It’s certainly an interesting mental journey.

 
Important legal note: These forms are available free and without practical usage limitations; to use, alter, and distribute; by individuals and institutions; as long as you provide free access to them and don’t try to claim the IP yourself or prevent others from using it. All my material is protected under the Creative Commons license indicated at the foot of the page, but for these pain scales, I’m saying that you don’t have to credit me — if you need them, just use them.
 

Bien approveche: may it do you good.

Share this article:

Refocus on what works: In memoriam

Debbie died yesterday. She was a never-failing source of encouragement and intelligent support on one of my key online CRPS support groups.

She died on the table, while undergoing a medical procedure. I don’t know exactly what it was, and given my respect for patient confidentiality, it’s none of my business.

She’s the first person to die of my disease, to whom I felt personally attached. Needless to say, it’s sobering as hell.

I’ve written about the need to attribute deaths from this disease correctly. I’m preparing my own final papers. These thoughts are nothing new.

But today, they are biting deep.

I’ve recently become highly politicized over rights abuses and intolerable corporate stature in my country. I have privately — and quietly — become convinced that the US healthcare system is so completely predatory, so opposed to its own mandate, that it will never offer healing for anyone in my position.

Debbie’s death has broken through my professional anxiety about appearing detached and scientifically sound. I have, at long last, become politicized about the most important subject in my life, after 25 years of personal and professional involvement up to my back teeth.

I have minimized my discussion here of what actually works. That dishonest omission has done us all a great disservice. I’m going to discuss what works, whether or not it’s FDA approved, pharmaceutically profitable, or adequately studied.

Medical studies are a shining example of the fact that we inspect what we expect, not necessarily what we need. The fact that studies have not been done on most modalities, or not rigorously done in double-blind experiments, doesn’t mean the modalities don’t work.

It means the studies need to be done. Period.

Where I understand the mechanisms of action, I will explain them. Where studies don’t exist, I’ll detail what should probably be explored.

But I have had enough of silence. I will not die as Debbie did. I will not die on the table. I certainly will not die saturated with soul-destroying pharmaceutical-grade poisons, as so many of us do.

I will find a better way. I will find a way that works. I’ll do my best to persuade others to study the modalities involved, and to fund the studies. My legislators will learn to recognize my name on sight, because their slavish debt to the pharmaceutical industry is absolutely intolerable and it’s up to me, and others like me, to convince them of that.

I wish Debbie a painless and peaceful rest. I hope her extraordinary husband finds enough strength and comfort to manage life without her.

For myself, I want the intelligence, resources and strength to find a solid cure, make it happen, and spread the word.

No more silence. It’s too much like consent or, worse, collusion.

I do not consent to the deaths of my friends.

With my eyes now open, I’ll no longer collude.

Let’s find a real way out.

Share this article:

New sib

Check out the sister site:

Bio Wizardry: Cauterizing the Bleeding Edge

I’ve already had one comment that told me I’m doing exactly what I intended — “I’m always searching for info., but rarely understand what I’m reading. So thanks!”

I turn handsprings inside.

Bio geeks and patients, slide on over. Feel free to tell me what you want to know, or what articles you need to understand. If I can bear it, and if I can do it, I’d be delighted.

Share this article: