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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Different doctors FTW

My pain diagnostic specialist is elegantly opinionated. Fortunately, he acts out the distinction between being opinionated and being rude about it.

We talked over a few things today. He’s still researching my past exposures to uranium, which he has a hard time believing wouldn’t have lasting effects.

He spent a lot of time combing through the idea that evidence-based medicine (in the sense that doctors use the term, not the sense that insurers do, where it means “how can we treat this as cheaply and barbarically as possible”) is really the best and least scary thing out there. Because, data.

I mentioned Dr. Scott Reuben at this point, and he owned that the scientist-practitioner does have to practice with integrity for the science to be meaningful.

He went on to say that the miracle cases that wind up in the literature leave physicians panting to find the next patient who shows up looking just like that case, so they can try the miracle. Doesn’t happen much, and so, there winds up being a paucity of data on rare cases (like mine) that meets the criteria of medical science as he sees it should be.

In the end, as always happens in conversation with a physician who has intellectual integrity, we found ourselves in the cleft stick of modern science:

While statistical probabilities indicate the best chances of success for groups overall, it has two glaring weaknesses, even in ideal circumstances: statistics depend on copious data, which aren’t always obtainable; and statistics mean nothing in the case of the individual.

Thousands of individuals are studied in order to come up with meaningful statistics. Of those individuals studied, how many respond to the treatment at the level of the group’s statistical probability? How many patients in real life will respond at that level? Pfft. All the statistics do is tell you how much of a crap-shoot a given treatment really is; it doesn’t tell you how well or badly it will do for you.

Last Friday, I saw my allergist/naturopathic MD at Northampton Integrative Wellness. He’s exploring mold toxicity, which sure hits all the hot issues I deal with. It doesn’t meet Dr. Saberski’s mental criteria, as I suspected, but that’s okay — I don’t need Dr. Saberski to follow up on it. I need someone like the docs at Integrative Wellness, who have the relevant background and tools, to follow up on it.

Because of my own experiences, I don’t necessarily assume that a well-educated, well-respected, well-published physician necessarily has a lot of intellectual integrity. However, I’ve come to the conclusion, through our conversations and his decisions along the way, that Dr. Saberski’s entire being (at work) is oriented on intellectual integrity.

We may not view things the same way, and he may not be thrilled at everything I do, but the fact is, he shouldn’t have to be. He’s delighted with my good results when I get them, and if this mold toxicity thing pans out and the treatment goes well, he’ll be truly elated for me — and will keep my chart on file, just in case I come back later.

I find it HUGELY relaxing to have such a resolute scientific conservative with such ferociously diligent, relentlessly inquisitive intelligence, which is completely balanced on intellectual integrity, on my case.

All I have to do in relation to the standard science is let him do his job! I do not have to educate this one — quite the reverse! I savor our conversations and make extensive notes, because he always has something to teach me. (Today’s exciting topics: what makes me NOT look like CRPS; the Flexner Report in history; how anesthesiologists, who have the diagnostic training of a spaniel, wound up running pain clinics — another stupid consequence of US insurance companies; and how the nociceptors and immune signaling in the skin are all entangled into being one thing. Woot! Fun stuff 🙂 )

That, frankly, has been unheard of for most of my time with this illness, whatever it turns out to be. I’m well and truly rid of the fearful weight of using my rare full-brain times to try to stay one step ahead of the risk to my survival and management that every doctor visit can be.

I can use my full- and even three-quarters brain time to study up on the stuff he can’t be interested in. For one thing, the vocabulary and writing style is usually less klunky and demanding. For another, that is supposed to be my job.

Patients should figure out what they can do for themselves without making things worse, so I’m happy to do that.

Now, I’m going to find out more about mold toxicity, methods and treatments, plus what data do exist on what to expect from those treatments and what they do in the body. According to my current info, the main researchers are Shoemaker on one hand, and Nathan and Brewer on the other. My allergy/naturo doc is leaving, so I’ll have to start with another one at the same practice. This means I’d better prepare, so I can move the conversation forward a little faster than usual. That means being able to speak her language in regard to what we’re looking into.

I find it’s best to impress doctors right off and for the first several visits, and then, if I’m having a bad day another time, they have a meaningful bar to measure against, and they don’t lose respect for me or dump me into that “just another whacky pain patient” mental garbage-can. I work hard to make visits as useful as possible, as regular readers know.

I’m also getting ready to do another massage intensive. Looking forward to that! It’s pretty uncomfortable for a couple weeks (arnica pills 6c and 30c, and Advil Liqui-Gels, are essential pre- and post-massage medication), but the payoff could be so spectacular. I’m tired of the downward slide and intend to crank up the functional level one way or another.

Winter bit me pretty hard. It’s time to start biting back.

"Visis mu! I care for you, so let me hand you 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 hand you this wildly inappropriate thing, because I’m too rushed to think things all the way through!”
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Documentation: Updating supplement sheet, showing changes

I switched to a new insurance company that might provide dental care. I haven’t tried them on that yet, but I will. It’s on the agenda for this year.

They want to pre-authorize my main neurological med, Savella. This is the main med that keeps my pain under some kind of control most of the time. If it weren’t for Savella, I’d simply not have survived the past 5 years.

Somehow, the pre-auth requirement has thrown my pain specialist into a tailspin. He wrote a prescription (although I had refills) and mailed it to me, then asked me to come in to see him (2-1/2 hour drive, involving an overnight stay to be there in the morning, which is when  his office hours are) in order to discuss this, before he’ll initiate the pre-auth paperwork.

I could get testy about that. It would be so easy.

What I did was refer, by date, to the first visit, when we discussed that first for 10 minutes. I guess his notes from that got lost.

This is where I stay off the computer for a day while I calm down, remind myself that it would not actually be in his best interests to throw me into a bottomless lake of fire, and it would probably not be in my best interests to beat him to it and kill him first.

When you have a brutal pain disease, and you have a med that works enough to let you have a life beyond fighting for the next breath and waiting for the lack of food and crazy stress hormones to kill you, and there’s a situation that threatens to take it away, the consequences of losing the med mean that life will descend into a level of hellishness that most people can’t even imagine. Thus, those of us who’ve found a med that works for us, enough to let us eat and move and think and speak — we get pretty intense at the prospect of having that med taken away.

This is not addiction. It never was. It’s true and valid need. Big fat difference.

Funny how it’s easier to believe when we’re not talking about narcotics, isn’t it?

> If you’re serious about managing the narcotic disaster in this country, you have to let yourself remember that both addicts and painiacs NEED TO BE PATIENTS. They both need CARE. Neither they, nor their doctors, nor their communities, are served by being turned into CRIMINALS.

> REHAB WORKS, when properly funded and designed. THAT is how you get addicts off of contraband drugs.

> PAIN MEDS WORK, when appropriately prescribed and used. THAT is how you keep pain-patients functioning as well as their diseases permit.

> There is some logistical overlap at times, but ADDICTION AND PAIN TREATMENT ARE NOT THE SAME THING.

> However, BOTH NEED TO BE MANAGED BY CLINICIANS, NOT POLITICIANS!

Okay, stepping off that soapbox. Feel free to copy/paste the whole blockquote as much as you like.

So, anyway, I’ve calmed down about my doc’s curious response to doing a pre-auth on my longstanding pain med.

This is really important: from here on, I’m talking about MY ANXIETY, not MY PHYSICIAN’S REALITY. This is pretty normal and natural, and I’m leaving it in as a straightforward demonstration of what my brutally nervous brain can do to in the grip of PTSD from decades of questionable care. So, here’s the anxiety-driven, defense-at-any-cost response. (For more on the reality, check my future posts on his doctoring.)

I remembered he’s a geek. More than that — he’s an ubergeeknerdyguy who’s been a high-end specialist for a very long time.

Geeks are brilliant in their particular slice of the world, but can be surprisingly insecure and nervous about stepping outside it. Also, sudden changes can be surprisingly disorienting to them. (Those of us with ANS problems can sympathize.)

Things that might rattle an ubergeeknerdyguy about this and set off mental alarm bells:

  1. My med was covered before, but now it needs pre-auth. Why? /dingdingding!/
  2. My diagnosis was wrong, and it’s possible that my treatment will change, but we don’t yet have enough info to decide what’s next. Feels like change is coming upon us too soon! Not enough information! /dingdingding!/
  3. Winter. Nobody over 35 is at their best here in the winter. /dingdingding!/

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

Obviously, to those of us who don’t inhabit the intellectual stratosphere, the first 2 issues are pretty straightforward (1: Cuz American insurance is funny like that. 2: Doesn’t matter — stay the course until there’s reason to change) and the 3rd is just life.

To an ubergeeknerdyguy who’s accustomed to controlling outcomes that nobody else can bear to deal with, it’s too much uncertainty to handle at long distance.

So, I’m getting my documentation ready:

  • I’ve got another copy of the letter from the ins. co. explaining they just want pre-auth.
  • I’ve got the current formulary showing that Savella is covered.
  • I’ve updated my supplement matrix showing the changes for the winter, which does 2 things: shows I’m really working on this “being functional” thing, and that I’m taking my chemistry seriously, not being passive and expecting him to do all the work.

In fact, the last point is so useful, I’m going to link my matrix here for anyone to crib from:

Isy’s Whole List of Supplements and Topicals (PDF)

Now my secrets are out! 🙂 You can now see exactly which brands I use and what I find that each thing does for me. (And, if you count up the number of capsules and pills this makes, you also know why it can take me over half an hour to get my pills down!)

Interesting points:

  • The first column shows changes (represented by a delta sign at the top). Docs LOVE being able to see at a glance what’s new and different.
  • Blank spaces are shaded out. This makes it obvious nothing’s intended to be there. (Common sense is not the same as intelligence, remember. Be as clear as possible.)
  • I put notes at the bottom putting it all in context.
    • My neuro supplements went down when I got my antioxidants dialed in to reflect the results of my blood tests. In other words, balancing my antioxidants really helped my brain!
    • My neuro supplements, along with everything else, have gone up to mitigate the brutal effects of cold and snowy winter.
    • This is not the time to make changes. Having said that, I’m not opposed to changes — just not now. (It’s good to explain, courteously and clearly, what your boundaries are around treatment.)

Detailing those changes tells the doc that I really do pay attention to what I’m taking in. I’m not a faddist; I’m diligent and determined to manage this as well as I can. Just from this one document alone, that’s reasonably obvious. Displaying this characteristic (or set of entwined characteristics) helps my doctors take me more seriously.

The real fun of this symptom complex: trying to keep others taking me seriously even when I realize I’m in such a panic my brain explodes. Woot!

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More on medical relationships as a 2-way street

I have written about dealing with careless, ignorant, detached, and outright bad doctors, which is needful and — given the many problematic layers of living with chronic, intransigent pain — appropriate. However, I’m also a nurse, and I really do see things from both sides.

You’re both right.

Having said that, I normally have to pull for the patients, because only one person in that exam room is definitely NOT paid to be there and is NOT on duty, and it’s the one seeking care.

Patients

Patients need more advocacy, partly because few of us have the vocabulary to make our real needs and issues understood, and partly because the mere label “patient” instantly drops a person out of the realm of “real human being” in the minds of providers. If you’ve ever seen, or been, a doctor or nurse who needs medical or surgical care, you know darn well how your erstwhile colleagues speak to you differently from how they did before — but still more humanely than they do to most other “patients.”

Being labeled a “patient” is damning. You become a thing, a self-steering talking object, with only a surface resemblance to “real” people. Your main appearance in the eyes of the system, and, at some level, of those who work in it, is as a collection of problems. Your main purpose is to respond to treatment and go away cured.

Chronic intractable pain syndromes become zero-sum games from this standpoint, because pain is inherently demanding — even thinking about pain is painful!*1 — and managing these disease states rarely involves being able to “go away cured.” So, from this institutionalized standpoint, chronic pain patients are set up as failures from the start, because we can’t do our job — go away cured.

Explains a lot, doesn’t it! This unfortunate fact is simply one more thing to work around.

Those of us with intransigent pain syndromes are lucky in one respect — we have interesting sets of problems, and intelligent doctors find that intriguing! Appealing to their curiosity is often more effective than appealing to their humanity, because it gets them where they work best.

A nurse who’s a patient

It has taken many years of painfully humiliating introspection for me to come to terms with this basic dehumanization of patienthood. I was a good, solid, compassionate nurse, but I did not treat people who came under my care the way I would have treated my friends or relatives if they were in my care.

Many reasons for that. For one thing, the profit-driven scheduling doesn’t allow time for anything more than slinging meds and essential care; spending too much time with one patient means putting other patients at risk.

Beyond that, there’s a primal survival reflex involved, because there are things nurses have to do for patients that would be unbearable to do to a friend or relative.

We have to do all of them, thoroughly and without flinching, because they need doing in order for that patient to heal; and we still must be able to come back to work the next day. So, we create a little distance that we can do the work from.

And, of course, the peer pressure is enormous.
They’re all looking at you pretty much the same way. Lovely, isn’t it?

Patients are Other. When they become too human, they can quickly become embarrassing, and every human on earth cringes away from what’s embarrassing. (Just as  every human on earth cringes away from what’s painful, and this explains why we tend to get abandoned by our friends and by the system when our pain becomes too obvious for them to bear. That, in turn, is why we get so crazy-good at minimizing the appearance of being in pain; we don’t like the abandonment, and we don’t want to hurt those around us anyway.)

Speaking as a patient and long-term survivor, starting from the underdog position is a terrible position to negotiate your ongoing survival from.

So, I spend most of my time advocating for and educating my fellow patients. They’re the ones who need it most.

However, once in awhile, something hits me, and I feel a point needs to be made.

Doctors (and other care providers)

This article is a good little anecdote from the ER, my old base:

A patient encounter that almost pushes this doctor over the edge

And that, right there, is the juggling-act providers have to do. The decent ones, which is most of them (really), put their hearts on the line every day, knowing they’re imperfect and doing their best anyway.

When I was doing something intense, like dressing a complex wound or teaching someone about their disease or (obviously) coding someone, that patient was the most important person in my life. I threw everything I had, with all the control and skill I had, into the moment-by-moment demands of their care, the whole time that they needed me.

That patient was my life.

Then, whether they lived or died, I had to arrange what happened next, clean up the mess, and leave the bedside, only to go to the bedside of someone who needed me perhaps just as badly in a wholly different way.

No matter what had just happened, after all that effort and dedication, I had to leave it behind and be ready and focused to correctly identify and move forward with the next patient’s tasks.

So, yes, I rarely came off as a fluffy cuddle-bear (which I tend to do at home), and a lot of my responses could be pretty formulaic, but when the chips were down, “he [still] wasn’t my child.” He, or she, or they, was my whole world.

CPR

Being able to turn away from that intensity is what makes it possible to turn back to it at need. That’s a tough thing to deal with when you’re on the wrong end of it, when you’re not the one dying on the table or getting your insides pulled about. You know you matter, and want to be treated as if you do. That’s right and proper. It might be too much to ask of a full-time RN. (There is definitely something weird about that.)

Nurses are the bedside providers. Physicians are the directors of care, deciding who goes where and why. They’re accustomed to deciding what happens, and expecting others to make it so, so that the patient can get better and go home.

Chronic care is always a long game, sometimes a waiting game, and doctors are dealing with people who simply can’t do what the doctor’s expensive education said was the doctor’s job: “send them away cured.” This means that the chronic care provider is also set up as a failure from the start, as some have found the grace and integrity to express. *2

This must be a special kind of tricky to learn to deal with, so it doesn’t surprise me that not many otherwise good-hearted people, who go into medicine for laudable reasons, don’t always manage it with the tact and decency that chronic patients (rightly) expect.

In that case, it’s not a bad idea to find a way to waft this article their way… It’s not judgmental, and it provides much food for thought, for physicians and patients alike:

How Doctors Respond to Chronic Pain

photo of someone wearing a nametag Dr Whatsit, with a word balloon saying, Oh heck! What do I do?

As a side-note, one strategy I find useful for getting through the thing-ness of being a collection of probl– er, a patient, is being as pleasant and amusing as possible. This creates a safe-zone of humor while drawing the provider in past the boundary of “thing-ness” I’m reflexively put in. The wry, black-nailed, hangman’s humor of living with something so vile and refusing to let it win, coming out in my burbling and whimsical-sounding tones, is probably sufficiently unexpected to blow categories out for the moment anyway.

If I can make them laugh with me (while checking me out with a puzzled “are you serious?” kind of glance) I’m halfway to being human in their eyes, and still being treatable. Then, I just keep up with my due diligence (timelines of care, understanding my treatment options, studying up on things we’ve discussed, etc.) and — with the exception of one doctor out of two dozen, who I thought was a buffoon in any case — my relationships with my doctors have been remarkably good.

me-fingers-peace

 

*1: A write-up of one of many studies about feeling others’ pain:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1237760/People-say-feel-pain-really-do.html
And a scientific article looking at brain response:
http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/17/1/230.full”

*2: A particularly dazzling piece from a UK doctor on coming to terms with treating (and living with) chronic pain patients:
https://abetternhs.net/2013/09/07/pain/

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Doctor appointment optimization

Here’s my Doctor Appointment Optimization strategy. This is especially important for new diagnoses, new doctors, and any significant change or comcern you have.

– Between now and your appointment, keep a pad handy and note down anything you want to find out when you see the doc.

– A day or two before the appointment, set up your documentation. Lay those questions out so you have room to write the answers (in printout or on a notepad, whatever works for you.) Also, if it’s relevant or might be helpful, make a current Snapshot to show the doctor. Make copies of whatever science articles or studies you want to share.

– If it’s a first appointment with a new doc, also print out your current Timeline and previous Snapshots so he or she can absorb your info more accurately and easily. Put them where you can be sure they’ll go with you to the appointment. (Consider faxing them ahead of time, with a cover note asking to have them put in your chart. The doc can then review them ahead of your visit. There are benefits either way.)

– Let the doctor lead the appointment, because they find it easier to be forthcoming, but let them know you have a list to check against before leaving. They like that balance as a rule, because they want your need for info taken care of, but need to feel free to do things their way too.

– It’s your appointment. It’s their job to do you, and your case, full justice. Ask, and keep asking, until you feel you understand the answers.

– Write everything down, because the brain flips a switch when you leave the office and it’s amazing what you can forget.

– Get as many relevant printouts as possible before leaving.

– This is key, an enormous time saver in the long run: Go over your notes and handouts once you’re out of the office but before you pull out of the lot. Just take 5-10 minutes to sit down and go over everything, complete unfinished sentences, tie things together, fill in details you didn’t capture right away.

– When you get home, put your stack by your chair, get something to drink/eat, recharge your brain.

– Pick up your stack, pull out your computer or a pad, and put everything you’ve learned and acquired into a plan of action.
What are the most important things you got out of today?
What is the next thing to learn?
What is the next thing to do?
Are your next tasks and appointments on your calendar yet? (If not, do that. The ‘overwhelm’ tends to short circuit common sense. It’s pretty normal, so you might as well plan accordingly.)

– Once your calendar is updated, your to-do list is laid out, and you know the keywords you’ll need for further research, you’ve digested the appointment pretty well. So, get out your Timeline (which of course you have, or, if you’re new to having a chronic condition, you’re about to start) and fill in a new row.

The point of the pre-departure review is twofold:
1. It gives your brain exposure to the info outside the office, after that switch flicks in your brain, but before the info in all its rich detail gets dumped from your short-term memory.
2. With that second exposure helping secure the wealth of detail, it signals your brain to start working on creating networks between the new info and older info. This not only helps put your own situation in perspective and improves your base of knowledge, but it sets off a cascade of subconscious activity of a very helpful kind, destressing the situation and helping you get on top of your condition.

If this looks a lot like great study skills, there’s a reason 🙂 Chronic conditions require study so you can make better decisions on the basis of better understanding. This is definitely, fully, 5-star, hayull-yes, one of those things where the upfront additional effort (which honestly is pretty trivial) pays off a million times over downstream… in easier life changes, less trouble over choices, fewer complications, more time to spend on having your real life.

Speaking from way too much experience, it’s worth it!

May all your appointments go well and all your doctors be excellent.

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Fragile Egg Syndrome

Chronic pain patients are often called Difficult Patients, when the casual cruelty and reflexive contempt of medicine and the ignorance of other people grates too hard against our increasingly impaired ability to compensate and deal with it as calmly and “rationally” as we used to.

I’m less and less certain that casual cruelty and reflexive contempt are rational to deal with. Really, the *rational* thing to do is draw the line when professionals behave badly, no matter what the profession.

I’m increasingly certain that those who provide care, and have gone to all that effort to be trained and licensed to do so, should probably take on the burden of acting with more kindness and courtesy than those who pursue less intensive interactions with the wounded, disabled, and ill. Not less courtesy. More.

The rational thing for the professional to do then is to reckon that requirement into the cost — because respectful and courteous patient interaction saves money and improves outcomes, but more/higher administrator salaries do not. The data on that are very clear… though strangely hard to dig out on the second point.

I sometimes mull the mindframe I had when I was working as a nurse, which was deeply compassionate without being cuddly or fluffy. I was well aware that only one person was paid to be in that room and adjusted my expectations accordingly. But still, I think of the casual disregard of others’ humanity that defines so much of health-professional behavior, and wonder at the culture that reflects. It’s not that we have to do degrading things like shove needles and hoses into people, it’s that we won’t let them wear real clothes or secure their electronics or even eat real food, when they’re in our hands. We no longer even warm the gel.

Anyway.

CRPS patients are a special category of chronic pain patients: we may be dealing with a level of pain consistently rated as higher and more intense, not to mention more constant, than anything else — including childbirth, most cancer, having fingers ripped off — with the sole exception of terminal cancer pain, which is at the top of the McGill Pain Index. It’s horrible but true that terminal cancer pain doesn’t last as long.

Colorful rendition of the McGill Pain Index, with many painful conditions listed, including Sprain near the bottom in the low teens, Chronic Back Pain in the middle, and CRPS up at 42-43.
Image thanks to Elle and the Auto Gnome

So, we are a distinct, and distinctive, subgroup of the Chronic Pain Patient set.

On top of that, of course, the brain remapping and the neurochemical disruption of longstanding CRPS means that our central nervous systems are absolutely hair-triggered for terror reactions, which transmute into all sorts of other things when our intellect has to wrestle with the terror… because screaming and fleeing blindly into traffic shedding broken bits of furniture and wallboard is, somehow, neither socially acceptable nor particularly useful.

My old pain doc, Dr. Richeimer at USC Keck Pain Center, has a wonderful term for those whom lesser physicians call Difficult Patients:

Fragile Eggs.

Isn’t that perfect? Easily broken, and when broken, extremely messy and hard to clean up after. Treat gently. Treat extremely gently. Understand that you may have a mess on your hands anyway. Keep your cool, adapt on the fly as the egg rolls around, and stay gentle. There’s really no other way to handle it.

(Like many others, I love that man.)

So here’s the thing.

At the end of a crappy week (thick with grief), I had a Pap test (painful, intrusive procedure which is easy to do badly) scheduled to check for cancer (which is frightening) because I had a blood test come up funny that can be a sign of gynecological cancer (so there’s grounding for the fear.) I know as well as anyone that these things mustn’t be delayed, but I waited an extra week in order to schedule a long appointment so that the test could be done in a rational, CRPS-friendly manner.

Silly me. Turns out a “long appointment” is 15 minutes. That’s not a typo. FIFTEEN MINUTES is a “long” appointment.

I really haven’t been keeping up with the downward slide of the health care field below the level of the best-of-the-best I’ve had out West. I’m speechless.

Did you know it takes 5-7 minutes just to say hello and catch up on the case with a complex patient? Do you know what it’s like to have a speculum inserted into a body that is one long scream of pain already, and the tiny, cheap, but essential steps it takes to make that a wise thing to do? Did you know that good practice for intrusive procedures, especially for those with PTSD around their bodies (which includes most women, frankly) is to meet the patient while they’re still clothed and have them undress for the invasion-fandango after they’ve had a chance to be human, and not just one long scream?

I know, it’s crazy to think that patients are human. Forget I said that. I don’t know what I was thinking! Pfft…

I told the office twit who roomed me and informed me that it was a 15-minute vist that a Pap smear on a CRPS body was not going to happen in 15 minutes. Twice. She set up the torture implements, which did not include Lidocaine gel or a warmer, in the cool office, and told me to get completely undressed and climb into the gown she laid on the exam table.

She didn’t mention that my provider, the one decent and rational entity in that department, was running very late. I had to find that out for myself.

Sitting in the cold room, staring at the torture tray laid out directly in front of me, still fully dressed because I could not succumb to being led like a lamb to slaughter, I tried to calm myself, to get my brain out of the state of being hijacked by terror at the casual cruelty of being tortured into spreading this hideous disease into my viscera, and helpless rage at this high-handed and disrespectful way of being treated.

I tried to reflect that, clearly, a lot of women who came to this office for care put up with it and, knowing New Englanders, never even thought of complaining because that would be a sign of weakness.

I tried to tell myself that my provider would surely rinse the speculum in hot water before using it, but that thought was booted immediately. I know from prior experience as a healthy person that a plastic speculum does not hold the warmth, but it does hold drops of water as they cool off quickly, and the temperature of that object does not affect the temperature of the 60-degree gel they put on it.

So, viciously cold thing going into my CRPS-y body’s core. Then that pinching, twisting jolt as it snaps open in mucous membranes which are wired straight into my central nervous system as well as my visceral cavity. During a weather- and trauma-induced flare.

There’s just no way that can go well.

I sat there for half an hour, trying not to stare at the torture implements although they were unavoidable in that tiny space, feeling my brain run circles around itself, trying not to scream, feeling my capacity for verbalization and rationality bleed away in the chill.

I realized that, although I wanted to connect with my provider and use the time profitably at least in discussing these problems and finding out my ultrasound results, I couldn’t sit there any longer. I needed forward momentum if I was going to come out of this intact.

So I spent the next 8 minutes writing my provider a letter, left it on top of the Patient Update document I had brought in (which mentioned my prior interactions with the staff, ALL of which had been record-setting-ly stupid and unproductive), and I left.

I did NOT run screaming into traffic. I didn’t break anything on my way out. I politely commanded the twit to copy my letter “now please”, stood over her while she did it, laid the paperwork I’d created for my provider in a neat pile on her table, and kept my copy for my records.

Then I quietly walked out, smiling politely at my provider as I passed her in the hallway heading towards the nurse’s desk.

I made very little mess, for a fragile egg.

I got my documentation, but forgot my purse. There’s something very Isy about that. (I’ll go collect it next business day, and hopefully that will be the last time I have to see them.)

So, this weekend, I have to do 2 things: find a gynecologist equipped to handle complex patients, and put together my own gyn exam kit — with a suitable implement, lidocaine gel, and heating pads.

Sometimes, BYO* is the only way to go.

I may be a fragile egg at times, but I don’t like it and I don’t intend to live there. I can’t control the industry, but I can control what I walk into the room with.

♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦
*Note for non-native English readers: BYO is for Bring Your Own. BYO is derived from BYOB, which means Bring Your Own Beer/Booze, normally used in regard to parties (obviously!) BYO moved into common usage on its own as a handy verbal shortcut; it’s still informal, but not nearly as informal as BYOB 🙂

♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦
UPDATE from early March

I got my own speculum, the Pederson type (which is a bit narrower); found food-grade silicon sealant (which smells strongly of vinegar, but nothing more toxic) and applied it over all the contact surfaces and where the edges meet; and prepared a bottle of pain-reducing Emu oil with a bit of nerve-pain-reducing Clove essential oil added.

I called the largest and oldest gynecological practice in the area, and asked for the doctor with the lightest touch. I was a bit disturbed when a large, fit, square-jawed, brush-cut fellow walked in, but he turned out to be an angel. He was happy to use my speculum, poured quantities of my pain-reducing oil over that and his hands, and gave me a break halfway through the procedure to sit up, get my pain/panic response under control, and pull myself into reality and out of the shocky place.

I’m sorry to say that the Pap test itself was a lot like having burning coals shoveled into me and pushed around, so yeah, there is definitely some nervous system remapping that has already happened to my insides. (It used to be an unpleasant little scratching sensation, and no more.)

This doctor wisely asked for a copy of the funky test, which was my serum DHEAS level. I went to my other doctor’s and got copies and ran them over myself. I took a look…

The doctor who’s substituting for my allergy/immunity doctor who ordered this test dropped a very serious brick. THE TEST HE REFERRED TO WAS JUST FINE. I do NOT have an abnormal DHEAS value. It’s a whole lot more normal than the rest of me!

I wrote the gynecologist a note on the back to that effect, and let him know that he did the lightest, best possible job under the circumstances and that I’m grateful. He looked absolutely white and shocky by the time he left the room, so I think it was a pretty horrible experience for him too, and I don’t want to scare him off of treating other pain patients.

I got a Pap test out of the way and learned something important about the state of my disease. I’m being more diligent about my multivitamins and SAMe, the methionine-based antioxidant I use as my main antioxidant supplementation besides vitamins. I’m researching the least nutty, most promising pain centers near me, at Yale and Brown Universities (Dr. Pradeep Chopra is at Brown, so that’s probably first on the list) and this week I’ll be making appointments.

I guess every setback is really a redirection or a kick in the pants for me. I may have CRPS in my viscera (which would explain a few things) but I needed to get my act together about getting a pain doc anyway. My DHEA test was normal, phew, but I’ve been harshly reminded to double-check everything the doctor says. I’m seeing my usual doc at that practice soon, and I’m going to ask him to double-check DHEAS results to see if any patient has been left uninformed and unfollowed-up.

I took a few days after the Pap test to simply refuse to think about it, because I did NOT want THOSE pathways to go any deeper into my impressionable brain! Took it easy, watched and read silly things, ran errands with J, took loads of vitamins and drank plenty of water… then started researching the pain doctors.

This is my policy… strategic withdrawal if necessary, yes; pause, rest, reboot, definitely; but in the end, “Never give up! Never surrender!”

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My preparation and self-care for surgeries and injuries

I have loads of advice for surgery and invasive procedures, so I might as well park it in one place. I used to be an RN and I’ve had this monster for over 15 years so I’ll share the key things I know, and others can add more about what they’ve tried or heard about 🙂

NUTRITION

One leg of my Holy Trinity of Healing: Nutrition, Activity, Rest.

ANTIOXIDANTS

With nerve or mitochondrial diseases, antioxidant support is absolutely critical and vitamin C is the cheapest, most bio-available antioxidant. It’s very straightforward — it basically works by refreshing and rebooting the others. The vitamin C protocols for surgeries and procedures with CRPS are simple:

  • 500 MG per dose (more than that, and especially a fragile system will get overwhelmed and throw the whole lot away)
  • 2 to 3 doses per day (2 doses for upper limbs, 3 doses for trunk and lower limbs)
  • Start up to 2 weeks before surgery
  • Continue for 3 months (12 weeks) after surgery

Have you had your D3 levels checked? If you’re chronically ill, do so. It’s becoming clear (finally) how crucial this is and how much of it our bodies need in chronic conditions.

D3 is critical for healing, especially joint and bone healing, as well as helping our calcium stay in bones and teeth, helping our skin, and maintaining soft tissue integrity. Get that checked when you can, but if you aren’t already taking it, get started. Something is better than nothing. Raise your dose until your serum vitamin D3 is well within normal range. This is important. The test is relatively cheap and easy to get.

FURTHER NUTRITION

Speaking from decades of clinical and personal experience, I’d add that this is the time to invest in a good, food-based multivitamin and take it with breakfast and lunch every day from now to at least 3 months after your procedure. After years of home care and being a patient myself, I have found nothing — absolutely nothing! — that speeds healing and reduces complications like really good vitamins. It’s like magic. Also, some science is beginning to emerge about the value of nutrition in handling CRPS.

I get my vitamins from vitacost.com, which has wholesale prices and lightning fast shipping, or luckyvitamin.com which has one week delivery. Amazon can sometimes meet those prices, and of course they make it very easy to give them your money.

The brands I can recommend are the capsule (not tablet) forms of:

  • RAW Vitamin Code (what I use), a Garden of Life line
  • Irwin Naturals
  • Garden of Life “My Kind” may be good; it’s new and I haven’t tried it, but its sister line is great.
  • NOW is normally ok, but it’s not something I’d recommend around a procedure. They’re great for the price, but not top tier. Their multis are tablets which are noticeably harder for fussy systems to handle.

For targeted supplements (Calcium, 5-HTP, DL phenylalanine, magnesium chelates, etc.) I use and recommend (as of 5/2017) these brands:

  • Jarrow
  • Pure Formulas
  • Doctor’s Best
  • Ester-C

Several other food-based vitamins used to be great but they got bought and really dropped in quality as the parent company squeezed their profits.

Several very famous brands, which I’m not lawyered-up enough to mention, are an absolute waste of money — go to the library and check out the issue of Consumer Reports where they investigated those.

Basically… don’t buy anything you can get in a major pharmacy. When it comes to meds, I always suggest discussing meds with your pharmacist, but when it comes to vitamins, the brands available to them are frauds with great advertising budgets, and they aren’t allowed to say so even if they know it.

Talk this over with a chronically ill person who is a vitamin geek, if you want more recommendations. Some health food stores have good vitamin geeks on staff. Ask around.

RECOVERY

This is based on the 12-week period that covers most procedures and most traumatic injury-healing. This is not for everyone, it’s not comprehensive, it’s just a generic brain-dump from one former RN and current chronic patient. If you’re planning to use this as a guideline, PLEASE take this into your doctor and highlight the bits that matter to you, so you can get a sanity check from the person who’s actually aware of your particular case and is guiding your care.

If your doctor expects less than 12 weeks, smile politely, bless their optimism, and plan for 12 weeks of intensive self-care as the better part of wisdom.

If your doctor expects more than 12 weeks, BELIEVE YOUR DOCTOR. If they tell you to stay in bed for a year, then the survival path and the wise thing to do is to stay in bed for a year. They simply don’t want you horizontal for any longer than strictly necessary, so take them seriously and don’t finesse it. Just don’t even go there. They’ll get you up the very minute it’s even vaguely safe.

Since spoonies are more likely than normal people to have a longer healing period, plan accordingly and mentally prepare a Plan B that includes yet another 25-50% of rehabilitation and recovery time. For each day in bed, figure it will take 1-3 days of activity to recover afterwards, depending on your basic fitness and cardiovascular tone.

It’s okay, don’t let the numbers scare you. I just button on my pig-headedness so it faces the right way, and make myself do the long, slow slog of building back up again. It’s hard work, but the time will pass anyway, and I want to be better at the end of it.

You are not a normal patient, if you already have something like CRPS.  Don’t panic; there are lots of abnormal patients out there! You’re not alone. Just plan wisely.

EARLY RECOVERY PERIOD

Early recovery is a bear, but it doesn’t last long. Some things we just have to white-knuckle our way through, one breath at a time. Early recovery may be one of them. It will pass.

At this point, a certain amount of swelling is good and helpful, because it keeps the area flushed with nourishment and growth cells.

Keep your affected body part ABOVE HEART LEVEL if at all possible, to allow the “used” fluid to drain out. Your heart should be able to push the blood up that slope (dysautonomiacs and those with existing circulatory issues, watch this closely), but your body needs a gravity-assist to help it come back down. It also helps keep the pain down. Letting a healing limb hang below heart level will usually immediately increase your pain.

This is where you corral all the pillows you can get your hands on so that, during recovery, you can park that puppy up there and put your head down to lower the bar even further.

Work out a pain management policy in advance with your doctor, so you have a Plan A, B, and C for managing different levels of pain after surgery.

If you’ve had to go to the ER for pain crises before, then ask your doctor to contact the ER and arrange a patient-specific set of interventions for you in case you have an after-hours crisis after surgery. This should ideally:

  • Be time-limited to the post-surgical period,
  • Cover both pain and infection and whatever other surgery-specific complications are most likely, and
  • Indicate when/whether they should call your doctor/surgeon.)

This will save a whole lot of time and fuss, and would make me feel a lot safer about the post surgical period.

Not all ERs make it easy to do that, but you’d be amazed how much silliness a bit of surgeon’s bluster can cut through. The ER will find a way to capture and recall that information all right. They just need a little push sometimes.

Speaking as an old ER nurse, I felt a lot better about treating a chronic patient in crisis according to their specialist’s or surgeon’s requirements, than us having to figure out something so fraught on our own. 

Pain crisis and post-surgical emergency protocols tailored to the chronically ill patient are a huge benefit to everyone involved.

There should also be a limit on how many ER visits before your surgeon gets called in, because if you need more than one (maybe 2 on the weekend) then you really need to be seen again by the surgeon on an emergency basis, since something may be wrong with the surgery.

Bones and joints

Those of you with bone and joint trauma or surgery, please be aware that the number 1 cause of non-healing bones is… using the darn things! Here’s the lowdown on fracture (and ligament) recovery:

For the first ~3-5 days, the “callus” is forming. This is the foundation of all the healing that happens after. There is no substitute. This is when there is the most swelling, and there needs to be: there isn’t much blood flow inside bones or connective tissue, so this is the best substitute. Extra hydration (to keep things moving through my tissues) and basic nourishment, featuring vitamins, antioxidants, and digestible protein, is my appropriate dietary focus.

For the next couple weeks, “knitting” is happening. The fractured ends are reaching across the nourished gap and, strand by strand, are pulling together. There’s no hurrying this process, but it’s easy enough to disrupt it, so keep staying off it. Supplementation with bio-available calcium (food-based sources are usually the easiest for the body to get hold of and integrate) with vitamin D, magnesium, and (according to some studies) boron and strontium, can be a real help with rebuilding the bone. I take phosphorus in the middle of the day, because it should not be released into my gut at the same time as calcium, because it’ll block it from being taken in. I take calcium, D, and the other bone-building supplements morning and night.

For the rest of the healing time, the bone break is turning that knitted lattice into solid bone which you will eventually be able to use normally again. I keep up the vitamin and mineral supplementation above, and, trust me, I did absolutely whatever it took to STAY OFF THAT FRACTURE until the bone had gone through its full healing cycle.

After that, it’s just rehab. That takes patience, pacing, and diligence, plus more pain that before, but normally, with the antioxidants and hydration and pacing, it does pass and the bone and muscle are all right at the end of it.

Ligaments take time. They don’t naturally have much blood supply, so they don’t heal quickly. However, with time, nutrition, diligence, and with moving enough to provide as much blood flow to surrounding tissues as your condition permits, these will normally come back in time too. Remember to go easy on that joint’s over-flexion and strain for a couple of years, because it won’t have the old elastic strength for some time.

Organ surgery and trauma

Abdominal surgery usually requires a coughing pillow, to protect healing and allow you to cough and clear your lungs without hurting yourself. (See the part on scar management.) The nurses should set you up with one, but any small, very firm pillow — or a bathtowel folded and taped into shape — will do the job.

Post surgical care for abdominal surgery boils down to:

  • Keeping your lungs working well. If you can’t breathe well, then you can’t do well. Simple as that.
  • Keeping your drains — natural and surgical — as clear as possible. (Tips: farts are good! Poop is great! Urine is the key to life!)
  • Keep moving in small, frequent bursts, so you heal faster — and to help with the previous bullet point.

And, for us painiacs, we add:

  • Managing pain, so the other stuff (breathing, excreting, moving) is more manageable in turn, and we don’t come out of it worse than when we went in.

You will be discharged with specific instructions about food, fluid, medications, antibiotics, wound care, and so on. FOLLOW THEM.

I know — antibiotics suck and it takes weeks of probiotics and soluble fiber and maybe Senakot to get our guts back in shape. However, the pathogens that can grow in there are far, far worse; finish your antibiotics and kill them dead. Then take the time to rebuild your gut.

I’d love to be able to say otherwise, but that’s the way it is these days; we as a society have to stop creating resistant organisms, and that starts with the ones we, as patients, treat in ourselves.

FIRST 6 WEEKS

The first 6 weeks is the “knitting” part, or, in joint replacement, the part where the bones bind onto the joint insert and make it part of your body.

Keep a close eye on your surgical area for signs of infection or rejection. Be sure your surgeon discusses this in advance so you’re prepared to take the right meds (might be as simple as Benadryl and Advil) at THE FIRST sign of trouble.

For these 6 weeks, the bone care and the skin/nerve care diverge.

Bones

With bone fractures or bone surgeries, NO STRAINING OR BEARING WEIGHT on that part. Do your prescribed physiotherapy if you have any, but don’t go *one ounce* over the line. Pushing it now is the surest way to screw up your healing and have a much bigger and longer-lasting problem.

Just stay completely off the darn thing, ok? Doesn’t matter what it takes.

I’m speaking as someone who crawled to the bathroom on 3 CRPSy limbs (think walking on hands and knees over live coals with hot electric wires sticking out of them, no kidding), 5-6 times a day, for this entire length of time, due to a broken foot. It sucked, but I did it. It was a nightmare and I’d rather shoot myself in the head than go through it again, but I did it, because that’s what it takes to get the bone to knit.

STAY OFF IT. Seriously. Just STAY OFF IT. Figure out how to make that happen, for 6 (in some cases, 8) whole weeks. The time will pass whatever you do, but you’d rather have one less major problem at the end of it, right?

Soft Tissue and Scarring

I scar quickly. This used to be a good thing.

Most scar tissue is laid down in the first 12 weeks, and 50% of that is laid down in the first … I forget.. 2 weeks, or 4? Like I said, my healing rate is odd, so I’m not sure what the usual numbers are.

The first stage of scarring needs to happen as undisturbed as possible, so your tissues can be closed up and the integrity of skin and organs and so forth can be maintained. However, after the first stage (which is when the surgical splints come off), it’s time to start managing the scarring, so that the tissue comes back as close to normal as possible.

Scar tissue is more brittle than regular tissue, especially if left to its own devices. If scar tissue is managed correctly, 3 things will happen:

  • There will be minimal brittle scar tissue, with minimal risk of subsequent tearing and re-injury.
  • Regular tissue will grow in and restore normal function, circulation, and flexibility, leaving only a little brittle scar tissue.
  • Underlying structures, like nerves,vessels, and ligaments, will not be trapped in the scar tissue, so they can continue to function normally.

If scar tissue gets out of hand, those good things don’t happen. And then you have more problems: tearing and re-injury, stiffness and limitations, reduced function in that body part, or, as in my case, nerves and other structures getting completely tied up and trapped in scar tissue (in record time.) Any of these is a whole new set of problems with added complications waiting to pile on.

Some Occupational and Physical Therapists specialize in scar management. Stretching, gentle massage, deeper massage after a certain length of time, silicon pads, heat therapy, bead therapy — they have tons of good tricks up their sleeves.

Case study: Me

I had come out of the post-surgical splint with 4 degrees of motion in my wrist. (That’s not a typo. Check that on a protractor.) Because I was still in the acute-healing phase, the scar tissue was being laid down faster than we could manage it, and if we didn’t have substantial improvement by Week 8 after surgery, I was looking at painful splints and possibly more surgery to loosen up my wrist/forearm so I could use it again.

A warm pack and pain meds, followed in half an hour by diligent massage and stretching for 10 to 20 minutes, three to five times a day, with a silicone pad on it otherwise, was my routine for over a month. I watched a lot of movies to distract from the horrible pain and keep going, because I couldn’t take narcotics — they had hospitalized me with life-threatening side effects.

That’s probably what sealed my fate with CRPS: ineffective and even toxic post-surgical pain control followed by months of brutal rehab with continuing ineffective pain control. We didn’t have a Vitamin C Protocol for hand surgery then, so I didn’t know to take additional antioxidants, the one thing shown to reduce post-surgical CRPS.

Sure wish I’d known that then! It’s so simple, so cheap, so effective!

My wrist has never totally regained all its flexibility, but it used to be freakishly flexible, so it’s technically all right now.

The caution and care you take in these first six weeks will pay off HUGELY. Put your natural stubbornness and self-sufficiency (which most spoonies have a LOT of) in the service of your healing for a month and a half, ok? 🙂

SECOND 6 WEEKS

Now, if things have callused well and knitted properly, the second half of the “12-week healing circus” gets more interesting. This is when you gently and persistently put that part of your body back in service, and remind the nerves there that their job is not to be hysterical and overly dramatic, but to report only/exactly what’s really there. Seriously. It’s a bit like self hypnosis. One great technique is in the “Mental Rehearsal” heading.

Another is a dry version of the Epsom baths described here. Keep in mind that you can use a washcloth or soft cloth dunked in Epsom solution instead of taking a bath, in order to benefit from the de-programming and re-programming you can do on your body in this way.

This period is crucial because that’s when 80-90% of the healing is completed. So, this is why the vitamin protocols, physiotherapy, and medical care really focus on that period. Problems are best found early in this period, so they can be fixed, mitigated, or worked around.

It’s not short, but it is finite!

PHYSIOTHERAPY AND REHABILITATION

Do what you can to get the best rehab possible, and be as communicative and involved as you can. Remember, whether you like your rehab professionals personally is not the point; it’s simply a question of whether you can communicate with them and get the care that you need. If you can’t communicate with them despite your best efforts, change therapists. There has to be 2-way feedback — especially with the tricky cases that we always are — or else it’s not a therapeutic situation.

Retrain the Pain

There are several ways to manage how the CRPS brain mis-handles the new pain information. These are different ways of hacking into the ways that the disease grabs the part of your brain that corresponds to the part of your body that CRPS wants to climb into.

Naturally, there are no guarantees, but mental-plasticity techniques can be hugely helpful.

Mental Rehearsal
When you are using that limb in the rehab stage, mentally practice the motion first, playing it out painlessly in your mind. Imagine the whole motion going perfectly comfortably. Then do the motion. If this doesn’t go well, work with your physical therapist on details of the technique (there are several ways to conduct the imaginary and real movements) and figure out what works best for you. Persistence is key in rehab.

The point is to make the movement you mentally practice as realistic as possible, as much like the real motion as possible, and have it be painless and comfortable in your mind when you practice it. Keep doing the mental rehearsal before the movement, and refine the mental rehearsal until you can predict the shape of your movements fairly exactly. This was one of the best tricks I ever learned for de-programming my body’s pain responses and getting back a TON of function.

If done wrong, it can have pretty much the opposite effect, so go carefully and find good guidance if it’s not easy for you.

Brushing
This is kind of like acting out a metaphor, and that metaphor communicates with the body-mapping parts of the brain in a way it’s hard for them to ignore.

I find it makes a big difference if I approach all this with an attitude of parental authority toward my own body. I can’t control my body completely, just as a parent can’t completely control a child, who really is a separate entity; but a parent can exert a great deal of influence, when they do so with tones of loving, generous, insistent declaration.

“This is best for you, and I know that, and what happens to you matters, so do this and we’ll go from there.”

For paraesthesias — the garbage-can term meaning “weird skin sensations”, including numbness, tingling, or allodynia — I simply stroke from a non-weird area into the weird area.

I pay attention while I’m doing that, mentally pushing the non-weirdness into the weird area, and telling the weird area to pay attention because this is what “normal” feels like and “normal” is the appropriate way to feel. Kindly persistence is key.

Every now and then, I hear Jim Carrey’s character talking to his dog Milo. This clip isn’t in English, but somehow the meaning comes through in the first minute: “Come here, Milo… Come on, there’s a good boy… You can do it… PUT SOME EFFORT INTO IT!”

PAIN REHABILITATION can take longer than 12 weeks! Keep at it

Be patient. Be diligent. Above all, don’t give up. It just takes time (months or years in some cases) but it can usually be done, and the time will pass either way so you might as well have something to show for it.

Keep working on it. Mental rehearsal, brushing, self-hypnosis, calming meditation, Epsom baths, vitamins, etc. It all helps. Keep at it.

If you don’t already have a good pain psychologist, this is the time to get that referral. Pain psychologists have special training around understanding how pain impacts the brain, and how this, in turn, affects our feelings and behavior, and what we can do about that. Most importantly, they have special training about how to use the characteristics of the brain to better our frames of mind under varying stresses. It’s pretty brilliant.

There is a ton of good science on how we can learn to use our minds to improve our lives, and pain psychologists are the ones trained in how to identify our strengths and struggles and train us as individuals in using the tools that can benefit us the best.

NUTS-AND-BOLTS PREPARATION FOR PROCEDURES AND SURGERIES

Basic activities of life have to go on… So, plan ahead, clear the decks for action, and prepare some things ahead of time so that you have less to flail about when the time comes.

FOOD

You need to be able to get a meal with minimum effort for a couple of weeks. Before surgery, stock up on easy food. For me at my surgeries, that was apples and nut butter, nitrate-free cold cuts and veggie chips, romaine lettuce and Cabot Extra Sharp cheddar — which I slice and bag up ahead of time. Trader Joe’s and good grocery stores often have pre-made wraps, soups & salads, and good frozen meals. For normal people with fewer allergies, it’s probably instant soups and microwaveable food. Whatever works for you. As long as you’re taking your vitamins, packaged food may be a reasonable compromise within your limits.

Say it with me: “Do what works for you.”

Clean clothes and sheets

Also, catch up on laundry and get rid of any “stupid problems” around the house — a door that makes you fight with it, a sink stopper that doesn’t work, a rug that always catches your foot. Fix the door, pull out the broken stopper and replace it with one from the dollar store, and get rid of the rug. I hate those kinds of rugs. (Old trauma nurse, remember.)

Making a “day nest”

If you don’t already have one, set up a “day nest” at home. It’s absolutely essential to get out of bed every day if possible, because it’s much better for your brain, but for awhile you won’t be up to much more. Make a comfortable place to lounge and watch tv, with your body-part up, some kind of toileting you can get to, and your comfort kit handy (books, comics, hot water bottle, meds, snacks, etc.) for hours at a time.

Personal hygeine (sigh)

You’ll need to waterproof that body part for bathing and showering. You may need back scrubbers and other reaching aids to get clean, too. At certain times, a wet washcloth may be the best you can do, so make it easy to reach the washcloth, soap, and a manageable towel.

Try to work this out ahead of time. Give yourself slack for different levels of ability: washcloth while sitting on the toilet, soaking in the bath with the body part perched on the rim, showering in a chair or stool, or standing under the running water. Remember to figure out how to clean and manage your hair.

Having this mapped out ahead of time simplifies the hygeine. For another, it’s powerfully healing to know that you’re taking good care of yourself.

The first few days are… special

I find that the first 2-3 days are too bewildering and painful to handle alone. After that, I’d begun to learn how to change position, dress, and wipe myself adequately (hey, that’s important!) and the IV site had healed.

If you’re on your own normally, try to find a helpful friend to stay with (or ask them to stay with you) for the first 2-3 days. All you need is someone to remind you that there’s life outside this, to pass your meds and a tissue, and, if necessary, call an ambulance to get you to the ER. Simple enough.

Final Notes

If you’re facing surgery or invasive procedures or a major injury, you’ve got a tough gig ahead of you, but you can manage it. I’d be wetting myself with anxiety if I had to face that again, but I’d do all this stuff anyway because I know it works.

Now, having said that, this is the part where I have to insert the reminder that I am not a doctor, I have not examined my readers, and I have no business making diagnoses or conducting treatments on them.

Since I’m a pretty straightforward old cuss, I’ll add that it’s your own body anyway and you have to do your own homework, follow your own inner promptings, and take responsibility for the choices you make accordingly.

May all things go well for you, especially recovery.

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How I find my doctors

It’s not easy to find providers who can pay attention to the people in front of them and think their way out of a wet paper bag at the best of times, especially in the increasingly money-oriented and depersonalized model of care that grows and spreads out from the US like a bad rash.

When you’re looking for a specialist in a rare disease like CRPS, it’s even more interesting.

Sources for lists of providers


The online info-and-education site, RSDS.org, can send you a list of providers if you write to them and ask:
http://rsds.org/finding-a-crps-specialist/. More usefully, though, they also provide a list of links to medical-specialist licensing board sites, where you can find specialists in your region.

I checked these out.

American Board of Pain Medicine

Enter your city, state/province, and country in the fields provided; choose your target category (Anaesthesiology, Physical Medicine & Rehab, Neurology, Psychiatry, etc.) to find someone board-certified in that specialty; and click Find.
http://imis.abpm.org/abpmimis/abpm/directory.aspx

American Academy of Physical Medicine & Rehab

Same as above but with better instructions at the site.
https://members.aapmr.org/AAPMR/AAPMR_FINDER.aspx

American Academy of Pain Management

This very useful search tool includes a range of natural, ancillary, and supportive fields of care, not just physicians. It also allows you to set a distance, so you can expand or limit your commute as you see fit.
https://members.aapainmanage.org/aapmssa/censsacustlkup.query_page

Last but not least

Of course, if your insurance provider has a specific list of providers they’re willing to pay for, you may have to start with the list they give you. That simplifies the process initially.

Using online reviews rationally

Having found a list of specialists, I strongly recommend reading lots of reviews to find the one who suits you the best.

That will be different for different people, of course, because we have different bodies and we each have found that certain kinds of things work best for us; doctors, likewise, have different brains and are inclined to use a distinctive set of treatments, believing that that is what’s best.

So, if possible, we probably want to find a doctor whose approach and treatments bear some resemblance to our own.

Excellence

In addition to that, I recommend finding someone with over a decade of practice. There is no substitute for experience. It’s the only way that judgment — that subtle sense that takes in a lot of info subconsciously to arrive faster at a better result — can develop.

Excellence takes time. Extensive research on excellence indicates that 10 years is the functional minimum to develop it.

Personally, I tend to go for 25-30 years. I know that I require a collegial relationship with my doctor, and it takes an unusual degree of poise for most specialists to handle that gracefully. Also, I really need to be treated by someone who knows more than I do, and the longer I have this, the rarer that is….

Review sites

List of review sites I’ve used

Doctor review sites I’ve used include:

Yelp.com
ratemds.com
www.vitals.com
healthgrades.com
zocdoc.com

Using review sites rationally

Once I get a list of specialists, it’s pretty easy to screen out the majority on the first pass, on the basis of inexperience or irrelevant experience. Some of these review sites, like ratemds.com and healthgrades.com, show the education, experience, rewards, and publication highlights for each physician. (All of this is public info.) These data make a great screening tool.

I only need to do in-depth review reading for less than a dozen doctors, usually. I don’t feel comfortable with less than 4 review sites for each doc I take seriously. Each site has its own slant, so I prefer to triangulate on each provider’s patient relationships from different sites.

Caveat emptor: It’s important to look at review sites with my brain plugged in and working. We know that some reviews are posted malevolently, and that everyone — including doctors — has a bad day. We also know that everyone — including doctors — has got their blind spots. That’s fine. I’m looking for PATTERNS, not exceptional instances.

For instance, one memorable doc treated beautiful people very well, and everyone else very dismissively. When his attention was engaged (which, for him, was about looks), he was intelligent, appropriate, and did outstanding work; these are valuable traits. Therefore, I’d recommend him (with an explanation), to friends who meet the age/BMI criteria in his sweet spot, because good care is good care — but I’d emphatically warn against him to the rest!

Last time, I wound up choosing a doctor who had a super high proportion of “he listens to me” remarks, had over 30 years of practice, had started in psychiatry (which indicated a more human-oriented and less problem-oriented approach, I thought), and did charity work for pain in his own time. That turned out extremely well. I wish I could get him to move across the country now, because I hate having to start the search all over again.

Now that I’ve got all my links in one place, it’ll be a lot easier.

Recap of my process

1. Create a list of potential providers:


Choose an appropriate specialty, such as..

  • anaesthesiology (training is oriented towards meds and procedures)
  • physical medicine and rehab (training is oriented toward physiotherapy and mental discipline)
  • psychiatry (training is oriented toward neurochemistry and life habits)

Choose an appropriate level of experience,with 10 years as my recommended minimum.

Make a comprehensive list of possibilities in your commute distance, using one of the board-certification bodies above or the list your insurance company provides you with.

2. Narrow it down to what makes sense:


First, quick pass through the list: screen for appropriate specialty (you’d be amazed at what winds up in those lists) and experience.

Second pass through the list: Start looking at online reviews. Cross out those who do a great job of pissing off their patients. Again, you’d be amazed… Every single doc gets a certain number of “he treated me like crap! I’ve never been so insulted in my life!” remarks, so I don’t notice a few of those, but when they predominate, out that doctor goes.

Third pass through the list: I look at 3-4 sites containing online reviews for the surprisingly short list of names I’ve got left. Some reviews are cut-and-pasted across sites, so I count those only once. This is where a pattern of personalities and approaches comes across.

Final triangulation: These impressions are easy enough to check by looking at the doctor’s web presence — activities they’re involved in, published work, what they do in their spare time (I find doing disease-related charities more compelling than golf club or Rotarian memberships, for instance), and I’m quickly down to 1 or 2 practitioners.

From there it’s a very simple choice.

3. Pick one.

If it’s a hard choice, I’ll call the office and ask to talk to the nurse. The staff a doctor hires have an awful lot to do with my experience there, so, by the time I know the doc has met my other criteria, incompetent or stupid staff is a perfectly reasonable deal-breaker.

I’m willing and able to travel quite a distance for a good provider, and this makes it a lot easier for me to find one. I’m deeply indebted to my partner for being so willing and happy to do so much driving on my behalf. It makes an enormous difference, and I’m suitably grateful.

I hope you all can find the right doctor where you need one. There is simply no substitute for good and appropriate care.

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Story: Shasta suggests a dog

This is another story improvised on the fly. One solution to boredom, when my studying-brain won’t work: I send it wandering, and it brings back souvenirs. I find that these mental excursions strengthen my mind and my focus when my studying-brain does work. (Jung might have been onto something, there.) It’s also very satisfying to feel capable of nothing, yet still produce something. I mean, wow, how cool is that?

Enjoy.

Shasta suggests a dog

Dark wings overhead. Are they angled up in a V, or flat across? Flat. Oh. Time to get the kids in.

She ran back towards the house, waving and barking. “Eagle! Eagle!” she snarled, when she was close enough to be understood.

Denny reacted quickly. He extended one gangly arm and snapped open two gates so that the pasture led straight into the barn. Then he followed Shasta, who had raced back up the pasture and was getting around behind the herd, shepherding them in. Danny called out the goats’ supper-call, but the goats didn’t take that well. They knew it wasn’t anywhere near suppertime!

Shasta‘s more direct approach got them going. She hustled and hassled the goats, coaxing here and pushing there, taking attitude from the harder-headed nannies and dishing it out in return. Fortunately, the billy was a lamb. Figuratively speaking.

Making soothing noises, Denny stood near the gate and persuaded the disgruntled herbivores, despite their complaining and nagging, to shuffle along and take a break in the barn.

Shasta sneezed after the last little goat, making it skip, jump up, and bounce off its mother’s side. Or, at least, giving it an excuse to.

Denny swung the barn door shut and sighed. The goats farted and burped, some of them eating their breakfast for lunch, settling in to hurry up and wait.

“So now we’ve got eagles,” Denny said. “I thought the hawks had that niche filled.”

“That pair of red-tails didn’t come back last year, and I saw a peregrine in the road yesterday,” Shasta muttered. “And now there’s baby goat,” she sighed.

Denny shrugged and walked back to the cabin. Shasta shuffled after, looking back moodily now and then.

“C’mon, old girl, let’s go in and have a cup of coffee.”

Coffee made and distributed, Denny sat down hard with a woof. Shasta flopped on the rug.

“I don’t know what to do about eagles,” Denny fretted.

Shasta blinked agreement.

There was a long silence.

“I know what,” said Shasta, pushing up on her hands. “Let’s get a dog.”

Denny looked at her with light slowly dawning. “You’ve got that friend,” he started.

Who breeds kuvasch,” Shasta finished.

Denny sank down, cross-quartering the idea for feasibility.

“Let’s call,” she said. “It can’t hurt to ask about it.”

Denny’s face didn’t change, but something in the air smelled of masculine resistance to asking.

“I’ll call,” Shasta rephrased. “Time I caught up with him anyway.”

She came back with a bag of peanuts and a grin. “He’s moving and has one pup left from the last litter,” she said, “so we get a deal, if it works out. We need the right kind of dog, because most of them don’t look up. Not normally. Not unless they’ve got a really tall owner, I guess. Kuvasch are enormous, and they’ll take on anything that attacks their flock, up, down, or sideways. They’re left in charge of herds for months at a time, they’re that good. We get to meet the puppy and try each other on, but in two weeks he’ll be gone, so he’s kind of on the fence about it.”

That was a long speech from Shasta.

Once Denny recovered from the verbosity, he gave his head a little shake and said, “He’s on the fence about it? What does that mean? Doesn’t he want to get rid of the dog?”

Shasta offered him the peanuts. “He’s a breeder. A real one. It’s not about unloading the dogs for a profit, it’s about spreading the kuvasch love and covering his expenses.” She chewed thoughtfully. “These are good peanuts,” she remarked. “Fresh.”

She examined the label while Denny absorbed that.

“Okay, so what’s so special about kuvasches?” he asked, making it an honest question, not snarking.

Shasta passed him her smart phone, with a search on “kuvasch” already done. “In rural Turkey, my parents had trouble finding childcare for me and my little brother. They were going to get a kuvasch, but then the neighbor’s sister came home from a bad marriage, and she became our nanny instead.” She shrugged. “Worked out for everyone. The dog was considered a reasonable solution, though.”

They went to meet the puppy three days later. He would scarcely even acknowledge Shasta‘s presence.

Half an hour later, after Denny had escorted a shell-shocked Shasta to the car and helped her to sit, he just sat and looked at her for a long moment.

Finally, she said, “He wouldn’t even look at me.” She turned to Denny. “How could he not even look at me? Dogs love me.” She turned away, sinking her chin. “I love dogs. Even that one, the rotten ratfink little bastidge.” She shook her head, tears trickling beside her nose. “I love dogs. I never met a dog who didn’t like me. I don’t understand.”

Worse still, in Denny’s mind, was the increasingly suspicious looks cast at Shasta by the breeder. Some friend. Even now, he was peering through the blinds, as Shasta wept over his churlish pup. (The sire and dam had been delighted with her, within the cat-like restraint typical of the breed. Only the pup had snubbed her.)

Denny gave up the pat-pat-there-there routine, cast a look of good riddance at the tacky suburban front of the breeder’s house, and drove off.

He was keeping his thoughts to himself, but they weren’t nice ones. He didn’t realize he was muttering nasty things under his breath, imagining the conversation he would have *liked* to have with the supercilious breeder.

Shasta noticed. She poked him.

He turned to her. “What is it?”

“You’re mutt–“

Denny checked the road just in time, swerved, ran the car off the road and stopped after several vaulting leaps over curbs, hummocks and undergrowth.

The car went pink-pink-pink. Denny and Shasta looked at each other with big eyes. Then they unbelted, cursed a bit as they got their feet under them, and tottered shakily back up to the road.

Yup. There was a green gym bag in the middle of the lane. And it was wiggling and whining.

Later, back at the cabin, Shasta, who was having the most talkative day of her adult life, puzzled some more. “Who would abandon such a beautiful pup?” She was on the rug with their new find, or new friend, stroking the drizzle of white that ran from nose to tummy through the short black fur. “She can’t be more than a few months old.”

The youngster looked at her worshippingly, as Shasta‘s hand traced the white drizzle again.

The next day, at the vet, Denny asked if the vet could identify the dog.

“Well, pit bull of some kind, I’d guess a thinking breed rather than a musclehead like most of them are.” The vet looked at the dog with her head cocked on one side, her fabulously chic lopsided fade blending up into a gorgeous cap of kinky curls. She was the sharpest vet for hundreds of miles, and even though she looked out of place in the country, there was something in her air — like the way she cocked her head — that made it impossible not to feel you’d found a good ally in troubled times.

“Hang on,” she said. “I’ll see if there’s a chip.”

There was.

“I have to look it up,” she said, clearly rather sorry.

Denny nodded.

She rattled at the keyboard for several minutes, shifting screens several times. Then she picked up the phone. “Mr. Mess? Hi, I’m the veterinarian at –“

She looked at the phone, surprised. She hit Redial, and began again. “Hi, Mr. Mess, I believe we were just disconnected. … Uh huh. Yes. … I’m sure you do, but I can hear you perfectly, so …. Why yes, it is about a dog with your chip in it. … Uh huh. … Uh huh. … Oh dear. … I didn’t hear about that. Oh, you did, did you? Well, I go home every night to the county sherif, and he never mentioned that call to me. … Oh, I see.”

Denny saw a vein start to throb in the side of her forehead.

“No, he would not have forgotten, because I’m the only forensic vet in the county. He would certainly have let me know. … Uh huh. … I see. … I think that would be best. … No, we are not a shelter, we’re a vet hospital. Howev-” she had clearly been interrupted, but was listening .. for another moment, anyway. “Let me say that there’s someone who might be interest –” Interrupted again.

The vet made eye contact with him, made a gesture to be quiet, and put the call on speakerphone. A grating male voice came out.

“– and then there’s the vet bills, vaccinations and so forth, plus five weeks of dog food,” the guy said, clearly compiling a bill to see how much he could get for the dog he’d abandoned for free. “And wear and tear on the furniture. And the makeup. That stupid bitch got into my wife’s Lancôme! Do you have any idea how much that crap costs? I’m seriously out of pocket here, and if someone wants that dog –“

She tried to intervene. “Mr. Mess, you misunder–“

He rode right over her. “And then there was the gas to take the dog out to where she could be found. That was not a short trip, you know.”

Denny had had enough. Shasta had long ago told him that she didn’t say much because she hated being interrupted or ignored, and men always interrupt women and most of them never listen.

He stepped up to the phone and, in his most alpha tones, rumbled, “Mr. Mess. This is Mr. Grill. If you’re interested in an accounting, then you should know that this dog has required treatment for damage due to her injuries on the road. As Dr. Smart stated, this is not a charity, it’s a veterinary hospital. If you are saying that, despite endangering and abandoning your pet, you still claim legal ownership, then we will be happy to send you a bill payable on receipt. It’s only fair to say that, even if your lawyer can persuade a judge to grant you everything you’ve listed, you’ll still owe us –” he stretched the word out — “thooooouuusands.”

He took a breath, then pulled on the velvet glove. “If, on the other hand, you relinquish all claim to the dog, then of course what happens after you abandoned it, illegally and in a manner which endangered both the animal and all traffic on that road, then of course this bill is not your problem. And, naturally, your expenses up to that point are yours and yours alone.”

There was a stage wait. Dr. Smart used the time to pick her jaw up off the floor and try to compose herself for speech.

There was a shaky little mumble, in which the word “relinquish” was barely distinguishable.

Denny needed to make this vaguely legal, so he added, “Would you like to conclude your business with Dr. Smart?”

Obliging gurgling sounds. Denny backed off the phone.

Dr. Smart said, very precisely, “Do I understand you to say that you relinquish all claim to this dog?”

Obliging hiss, probably a yes.

“And I can reassign ownership however I want?” She added briskly, “And speak up, I can barely hear you.”

“Sorry. Yes. Do whatever you want. She’s not mine anyway.” He muttered nastily, “Stupid black bitch.”

Dr. Smart reared back, took one look at Denny’s expression, and hung up.

She said to Denny, crossing her arms and leaning back slightly, “You do know she’s all right, don’t you? And this visit is not much more than a well-puppy checkup? And, although I appreciate the good intentions that made you run interference, I can’t support lying, and I and only I am in charge of what happens in my practice?”

Denny thought fast. He reached carefully over to point at one paw. “Um, I think she stubbed a toe. That was related to her being abandoned on the road. Right?” He spoke humbly. It was b.s., but it was obvious b.s., and he radiated apology.

She smiled, unbending just this once. “She certainly could have gotten much worse. Now take her home and teach her to watch the skies for eagles. Something tells me she’ll be good at that, in spite of the odds. I’ll update the microchip database for you.”

Denny reached into his pocket. “What do I owe?”

She smiled wryly at him. “Thooooouuusands. Now get home before Shasta starts worrying.”

Denny said, offhandedly, “Shasta never worries. She’s too sensible.”

The vet gave him a look, a very womanly and very smart Look. “She just doesn’t tell you about it. Good afternoon, Mr. Grill. And good driving.”

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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.

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