Another great question about an ordinary (for CRPS!) change led to another “Isypedia” blurch. Here goes.
Once in awhile, something changes out of the blue. What is a CRPSer to think when suddenly caffeine and chocolate cause massive itching?
Nerd note: Yes, the word “caffeine” is used differently in ordinary speech than it is in botany or food chemistry. That’s okay.
There is a chemical class called xanthines, of which caffeine is one member.
Related chemicals, with very similar or nearly identical activity in the body, are lumped together and called ‘caffeine’ in ordinary communications.
“Why? Why this sloppiness??” I hear some of you cry.
Because most people are not food chemists, and what’s important is what it does to you, not exactly what to call it.
Technically, tea contains theine, mate contains mateine, coffee contains caffeine, and chocolate contains theobromine (and sometimes a tiny amount of caffeine.)
Neurologically, it’s all “tomayto, tomahto.”
Back to our blog post.
On developing food reactions in CRPS
First, it’s not unusual (yet not really normal) for CRPSers to develop new sensitivities and allergies out of the blue. This has to do with several things, as a rule: the digestion doesn’t break down proteins as well as it used to, and those proteins are more provoking to the immune system than they would be in a healthy body.
It’s worth noting that allergies (and many sensitivities, which can also be histamine reactions — another note for my fellow nerds) happen on the basis of molecules, not teaspoons or larger doses — and, at that micro level, everything has protein the body can react to.
Second note on allergies is, that most of what we eat contains more than one thing we could be reacting to. If I thought it were the caffeine and chocolate setting you off, I’d want to check those labels and look for similar additives.
If you’re using medical marijuana (great when it works! Wish it worked for me) then look into how it was grown. Aim for organic and, if possible, outdoor-grown. If you have allergies or sensitivity to iodine, egg, etc, then you may need to dig further and avoid marijuana grown with fish compost, chicken manure, or what-have-you. You may need to cultivate (as it were!) a relationship with an individual grower who can meet your needs.
On neuro causes of itching
However, you’re specifically noticing reactions from caffeine and chocolate, which — specifically — can activate the C-type fibers in your nervous system — the very fibers responsible for the sensation of itchiness and also for the surface hypersensitivity that go with CRPS.
So, it’s very possible that it’s not so much an allergy (which is a protein response) but that you’ve developed a neurological hypersensitivity to these C-fiber-stimulating chemicals.
In that case, it’s not just a question of avoiding caffeine and chocolate (sorry!!!) but also supporting the C-fibers so they can calm the heck down and not go further into their over-reacting.
On other causes of itching
Have you changed meds in the past few weeks? MANY meds can cause itching, especially neuro-active meds — and most meds that we take are neuro-active in one way or another.
Check with your pharmacist or doctor right away if you develop itching with a new medication.
Have you changed laundry detergent or other things that come in contact with your skin? These could increase your skin’s reactivity.
If your neurological system is being hyper-reactive, it’s not a bad idea to switch off of scented products. Keep in mind that they don’t have to test something for safety before marketing it, and their profit depends on consumers not asking too many questions. Just food for thought.
Things to try that don’t require a doctor
Some things to try for itching, if you aren’t already doing them, are nutritional (something to swallow) or topical (something to apply to your skin.)
Nutritional care for itchy nerves
– Vitamin C, preferably Ester-C (food-based, and specifically easy on the stomach and slow-releasing.) Vitamin C is one of the few food/nutrition things specifically studied in CRPS. It’s wonderfully neuro-protective and most forums recommend making it part of daily life. The range studied was 1,000 to 1,500 mg per day. Some people take 500 mg /day with good results. I take 1,000 mg.
– Magnesium, either as digestible chelates in capsule form, or as Epsom salt in a not-too-hot bath. This can really soothe hyper-reactive nerves, especially the C-fibers. If you take the capsules, take with food, partly to improve absorption and partly because magnesium can be a little hard on the stomach. (For internal use, stick with the chelates. Don’t drink Epsom salt solution unless you want to clean out your GI tract really fast.)
– Other nutritional supplements that can help moderate that itchy C-fiber activity are, believe it or not, Calcium (food-based, not rock-based) and vitamin D3. The physiology is kind of complex, but it boils down to this: Calcium not only builds bones, but it handles certain kinds of nerve transmission; D3 stabilizes the behavior of Calcium, so it doesn’t wander off in the wrong direction. Not surprisingly, CRPSers (and everyone who’s chronically ill, even in sunny locales) tend to be very low in vitamin D3. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about your condition, your symptoms, and what dose of D3 to start with. Although too much can be toxic, that’s not something you’ll be dealing with for awhile! Unless you’re tracking this already, you’re likely to be quite low in D3.
Topical care for itchy skin
– Certain oils can help tremendously.
* Emu oil (not suitable for vegetarians) is packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. It’s absolutely amazing for pain. It’s extremely well-received by most skin, and absorbs several inches deep into the tissues. This makes it a great carrier oil, as it can carry whatever is added to it right into your tissues. Be sure to get AEA certified emu oil, as that’s the only kind known to be 100% real. (Because it’s not cheap and not regulated, all kinds of things get tossed into a bottle and labeled “emu oil.”) Cheapest brand of AEA certified I know of is Pro Emu, available from proemu.com and amazon.
* Sweet Orange essential oil. Always, always blend this at 1:15 or more with other oils, because it can cause chemical burns (first time I used it in a bath I didn’t dilute it! Never making that mistake again! LOL) In other words, a few drops of Sweet Orange oil to a couple tablespoons of any vegetable oil or emu oil, makes a great treatment for that C-fiber itching.
* Clove essential oil is better for nerve pain (been used for thousands of years for nerve pain) than it is for itching, but it sometimes helps me with my itching. Same precaution about diluting the heck out of it, applies. I mix it with Sweet Orange and Emu oil for a one-size-fits-most solution.
– The herb Melissa officinalis (also called lemon balm), either as tea, hypercritical extract capsule, in the bath, or on a washcloth used as a compress, can also be helpful. It, too, has been used for thousands of years to treat inflamed and over-reacting nerves. It’s good for itching and great for nerve pain. It blends very well with chamomile, which also has anti-inflammatory (not NSAID-like; works differently) and can soothe itching.
– Some find oatmeal baths helpful, especially when it’s an allergy itch. (Sometimes it helps with a C-fiber nerve itch.) Put rolled oats in the blender and whirr the heck out of them to make your own “Aveeno bath”, and use about 1-1/2 tablespoons in your bath.
I can’t go near oats because they trigger gluten issues for me, but that’s my problem. If I could use oats, I’d add a few drops of orange oil mixed with carrier oil right into the whirring blender and whip it right into the oat powder.
What’s cheapest and most reasonable of these things depends on your situation and circumstances. I hope you find something helpful here.
Oh boy, another brain dump … This one on how to work on getting worsening tendinitis to back off and let you get your life back.
=================================== I’ve been through the worst possible scenario that started with this kind of overuse pain, and the worst possible things went wrong just short of amputation, and my entire life got wrecked.
Also, I was a nurse, and what with one thing and another, I think I’ve seen a lot of ways this can go. So, I do hope you’ll forgive me for offering some perspective and advice from the sharp end. It’s wholly well-intended and very much from the heart. I do not want anyone to go through a tenth of what I did.
Firstly, it’s usually possible to rehabilitate tendinitis, IF you are sufficiently wise and adult about it. (Easier said than done!)
Secondly, doing so takes time; give it 2 years, considering how widely it affects your life right now.
Keep in mind… *those two years will pass anyway.* Wouldn’t you rather be better at the end of them, rather than facing a lifetime of being handicapped in all the most fundamental and enjoyable tasks of life? Trying to live without using your hands is no way to go. Trust me on this.
It will require changes, some of them major adjustments, and some of them minor adjustments to what you already do.
There are several aspects to address, none of which are optional, but all of which have different things to try:
– Positioning during the day (when we do 95% of our activity.)
– Positioning during the night (when we do 80% of our healing!)
– Rest & recuperation time (without this, nothing improves for long.)
– Rest & recuperation physiology (nutrition & pain control.)
– Adapting life tasks to ease up on your wrists (this requires professional help to get started with, so the physical dynamics start off right and you learn what “good enough” really is and what it isn’t.)
You’re obviously a very bright and rational person, and I feel very shy about stepping forward here, but you’re doing what I did and what many people do, and smart and well-informed as you are, it’s just possible you’re overdoing to the point of damage, and that damage IS almost certainly recoverable and possibly totally preventable. It just takes a bit of time and work first, then you can get back to the best and most important things when you’re better. (Never give up on getting better.)
– Positioning during the day
Talk to your doc or physiotherapist about whether a brace would help or hurt your wrists. It depends on where the tendinitis is and what the triggers are. Alternatively, learning to tape them may be better. (I got a whole extra 6 months out of my right wrist with strategic taping.) The right structural support can change things. (As can the wrong structural support, but not in the good way.)
I assume you’ve been to your doc and have discussed that 🙂
– Positioning during the night
Few docs know this trick (my surgeon did), but it’s absolute gold: Wrap towels around your elbows at night so you can’t bend them up in your sleep. Since >80% of recovery and healing happens during night-time sleep, the more you can protect your arm tissues during that period of time, the better. Bending them up cuts off that process. Simply cuts it off. So, unbend.
Since you have this tendinitis, there’s a ~90% chance you sleep with your hands tucked up by your face. It will take some adjustment (sure did for me) but that position is about to change. You clearly depend on your wrists too much to let this go on, so *let* the nerve and tendon pathways heal at night, and see what that does for you over time.
This one thing alone has “cured” some people of their daytime symptoms. It’s terribly important — it repays perseverence.
– Rest & recuperation time
Yup… put the hooks, needles, etc., down for a few weeks to a few months. I’m sorry, but healing takes time and there’s no shortcut to this. The good news is, the time WILL pass, and you’ll be better for it. (I wish I’d done that!!!)
The most helpful guidance on “how long?” is probably from a rehab speciallist called an occupational therapist. They’re technically similar to physiotherapists, but they focus on the mechanics, tasks, and demands of daily life. THey’re more dialed into the practical application of the larger issues that physiotherapists and physicians work in.
Since you’re still doing these things despite the pain, I figure your doc may not be *completely* up to date on just how much this is interfering with your life and activities. I’m an old nurse; I’m not wild about doctors; however, this is a great time to get re-acquainted with yours — because he or she can sign you up for OT and PT to help you rebuild your tendons without further damage, and rework the hand-tasks of life so the *overall burden* of wrist-stress is better distributed and *still* gives you time to do the things you love to do!
– Rest & recuperation physiology
Tendinitis can be solely due to overuse, or it could be due to overuse plus other factors. (E.G., I have a fairly normal variation in my radial muscle, where the edge of the muscle bundle is sharp; it wound up scraping and irritating my radial nerve so much along that edge that I had to have a chunk of the muscle cut out. I also had carpal tunnel space that was simply tiny. That had to be opened up so the nerves and tendons could fit without hurting each other.)
Basically, if something mechanical really needs to be dealt with, it’s wise to deal with it so you can get on to the good part — getting better. (I’m no fan of surgery either, but sometimes it makes sense.)
Pain makes your body tissues sticky, and sticky tissues get gummed up; gummed up tissues hurt more because they can’t move right or work right or clean themselves up properly. And round and round we go.
Thus, less pain with better hydration (to clean out the sticky stuff, quite literally) makes for better healing. Two things can have significant effects on pain — nutrition and medication.
Wild fish and grassfed butter (bring on the Kerrygold!) are known to reduce inflammation, improve metabolism, and support healing. (Conventional butter and farmed fish, sadly, do not. Long explanation r/t histological metabolism.) Produce of all colors make a huge difference in healing.
Even with a great diet… in our modern messy world, and with a fairly longstanding pain issue evolving, it’s not ideal to depend on the finite number of calories you can eat to get all the nourishment your body is hoping for. Fish oil (very fresh: Nordic Naturals and Kiva are known to have good fresh processing and delivery methods) and, of all super-easy things, vitamin C are outstanding for inflammatory pain and nerve healing. As a long-time painiac, I recommend 500-1,500 gm daily of Ester-C, because it releases itself slowly and is the most digestion-friendly vitamin C I’ve ever used. Vitamin C works by refreshing all the other antioxidants. Wonderful stuff. Your nerves are among the biggest producers and biggest users of antioxidants; right now, they need more, but can produce less, so it helps a lot to make up the deficit.
From my own standpoint, I consider a good food-based multivitamin essential, because I’ve seen in myself and in so many others just how much of a difference it makes in healing time and recovery completeness. However, I realize many have strong feelings about supplementing with multis, and I don’t want to seem contentious 🙂
Ibuprofen/paracetamol, where you’ve got plenty of hydration and good nutrition, are terrific for reducing inflammation and knocking back the pain, of course.
– Adapting life tasks to ease up on your wrists
So you get to keep them for the rest of your life 🙂
This is where you want to start with an Occupational/Physical Therapist, rather than doing the natural/easy thing and trying what your friends have tried.
Why’s that? Easy — because of muffled signals. Since you’ve been dealing with this for awhile, you’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring some body signals, and one thing these pros can do is help you learn *which* signals are right, and which ones can be safely ignored. Once you get the parameters in mind, then you’re better equipped to choose your own adaptive gear from there.
Having the outside pair of eyes, which are so well-educated, is a great help in readjusting life and redistributing the load on your body.
I hope that’s helpful, and I hope you don’t mind my hopping onto this so enthusiastically. It’s my mission, now that I’m on borrowed time, not to let anyone else endure any of the horrors I did
We have to try some fairly startling chemistry in order to find the right support for our weird and wacky systems. It’s not a joke — but it can be a circus.
Years of nursing — in home care, acute care, HIV care, emergency care, all sorts of things — and, of course, the independent study I wound up doing along the way — most of the time, having no health insurance of my own, because being full-time at one facility was intolerable so I spliced together several part-time jobs in order to keep my mind working — where was I?
Oh right — getting safely off of problematic medications, which I’ll call “detox” for short. We usually think of hard drugs or alcohol when we say that, but the underlying mechanisms and the affected structures are the same. Logically, it works.
I could bore you to tears about the metabolic work of detoxing, but I won’t. I’ll drop in a brain-dump I just did for someone who has had to come off of Lyrica, the most fashionable med for CRPS right now (look here for the background on its fame), and — like many! — has not been able to recover former thinking, memory, and personality. Hopefully, it will return in time. In the meantime, helping the body clear out the last of the med, thus reducing the background strain, could help.
One thought before proceeding … it’s old news now (at least from 2009, Çagla Eroglu et al.) that Lyrica kills new synapses. In other words, if you get that blank, stupid feeling when taking Lyrica or Neurontin, it’s not imaginary.
This class of meds actually works by slowing down the rate of “excitement”, or activity, across the synapse. It does so in a way that prevents further synapse formation. Normally, new synapses keep forming throughout life. Making use of that fact is the best way to battle age-related brain diseases as well as chronic pain.
There is a ton of dense “science-speak” surrounding the fact that the very thing that makes it work short-term or for occasional use, is the very thing that makes it problematic for chronic and long-term use. That’s a complex issue. The precise nature of this activity has only become apparent over time, and medical science hasn’t really figured out what to do about it yet. Meanwhile, buyer beware.
This is going to take a few more years to shake out. In the meantime, keep a diary of what works and what doesn’t, and how goofy you seem to be. Note where your meds change. Look for relationships. Talk to your pharmacist and your doctor. Keep them in the loop, even if you — or they — don’t always agree.
We and our care teams need to work together, and as the patients, the burden of managing that falls on us.
Don’t overthink that — if it’s working for you and you don’t notice the deficit, then think carefully before switching. It’s not that those who do well on it should change, it’s simply that such a med does not belong on the first line of treatment, but in the second or even third. Less synapse death is better, usually!
The point of putting gabapentin/pregabalin in the second or third line of treatment is that, if the other stuff doesn’t work, then those who need Lyrica will still get to it, after trying the meds that’re less likely to be problematic.
Anyway, here’s the brain-dump on detoxing from almost any med, with some special notes about this tricky class.
BTW, this works for narcotics too. In that case, be especially diligent about easing slowly onto the liver-cleansing stuff, because you don’t want to clear your opioid receptors too fast for your body to cope with. “Easy does it.”
If you’re interested in suggestions, I sure do have some. I had to get off Neurontin, Effexor, and a few other heavy-duty nuisances, and I used to be a nurse and helped an awful lot of other people deal with this…
If you’re not interested, I understand, I don’t mind, and please just ignore the rest of this 🙂
[I left that in because it’s important to realize that not everyone on a support group wants advice — some just want to vent.]
Normally, going off of one major med is part of a larger task of re-adjusting the whole medication picture. There are 3 important elements to this process:
Clearing out the old med
Trying something different
Firstly, of course, lots of hydration (yes, the bathroom trips are work, but your blood, lymph, and skin do need the fluid to clear things out, and your brain and spine need more water to rest upon when they’re suffering.)
So, as you reach for your water, here is the rest of my riff on detoxing from meds.
Clearing out the old med:
The point is to clear the old stuff out of your system. This means supporting your body’s “housekeeping department” — liver, kidneys, blood, lymphatic system, skin.
SInce gabapentin dissolves itself readily in fat, it hangs out in your system. (Every cell wall and every bit of white matter in your body uses fat. It’s not optional.)
Your kidneys take the burden; your liver doesn’t seem to do much to it, as most of the drug is excreted unchnged. That doesn’t mean your liver doesn’t have to deal with it as it passes through, though. (Fat-soluble drug in a high-fat organ.)
These are both blood-rich organs, so that’s why the artichoke and dandelion (root in tea, or leaf in salad) can be useful — they support the liver’s detox work. Also, milk thistle seed (silymarin) is in the same category as artichoke. I’ve always used whole seed and ground it fresh, as thats cheap (except for being hard on the coffee-grinder) and works gerat with no side effects, but extracts and preparations are available too.
Any one of these (artichoke, dandelion root, dandelion leaf, milk thistle seed, silymarin) is fine. Whatever works for you.
Check with your pharmacist!
Check with your pharmacist before adding this stuff to your day. There are meds which these cleaner-uppers can interact with by cleaning up the liver. For instance, if you’re on chemo, save this for after you’ve finished the chemo and are rebuilding yourself.
A good pharmacist knows this, and can check scientifically-developed references for more info.
The other aspect of clearing the med out of your system is supporting the “mopping-up” part of the housekeeping team — your blood and lymphatic systems. Green tea, echinacea (mix it with lemon & honey to make it tolerable), melon (fruit or juice), and citrus are all good for this. If you can find citric acid from fruit rather than corn, that can do a good job too. (There’s something odd about the corn-based citric acid — it tends to trigger indigestion and gastritis in the vulnerable much more than the fruit-based citric acid does.)
Any of these (green tea, echinacea, lemon, lime, melon, citric acid) are good, not only for helping get more water into you, but for helping your lymph and blood to “scrub between the cracks” and pull the rubbish out from your cells and clear it away.
Lymphatic support: start gently
Start slowly and work up, because you don’t want too much backlog clearing out at once. If you start at a high dose of green tea or echniacea, you can wind up with swollen lymph nodes, because your body can detox faster than your lymph and blood can wash it away. Give it a chance and work up gradually to a therapeutic dose.
Start at one cup of green tea or echinacea a day, and work up to 3 times that. See how you do and let your body adjust for a few days or a week. Then go up to 4 times that original dose. Give this a month or six weeks (your call) and taper off again if you want to.
Drink up 🙂
For lemon or lime water, melon and melon juice, and of course seltzer, you can drink as much as you like, as long as the citrus is well-diluted and doesn’t give you any trouble.
Citric acid and lemon or lime are best used with plenty of water. Using an intense concentration can irritate the stomach. (These also help prevent kidney stones, btw.)
Just like the artichoke/dandelion/milk thistle seed — check echinacea and citric acid with your pharmacist before using them.
If it’s okay to use echinacea with your other meds, then remember to either go off it after 6-8 weeks total, or, if you find you need to stay on it to keep the channels flowing, then remember to take a week off every month. Your body needs a break in order to keep responding to it. Echincacea is not for ongoing use unless you’re being followed by a good herbalist who’s comfortable with your complexity. (If getting the Lyrica out of your system is the only thing you need it for, then one round like this should do.)
Or you could just…
As I look back over this incredible screed, the simplest thing might be to find a nice herbal “detox tea” and start with one a day, go up to 4 a day, and leave all these details to the nerds!
I hope you can get clear of the Lyrica and find the right pharmaceutical/dietary/physical/mental support for you.
Shifting to a different med for neuro pain:
The mixed-SNRI class of new meds has had the best statistical results of anything so far tried, according to the first few years of studies. Mine saved my life (Savella) — it helped that I had a fibromyalgia diagnosis, and Savella was developed and tested on fibro, so insurance would cover it. It cuts my fibro pain by 90% but it also cuts the CRPS pain by almost as much.
All of the so-called “anti-depressant” classes have been found to be statistically useful in treating neuro pain. Why? Because what they really do is stabilize the messenger molecules.
The most profitable market for this is depression, but our central pain means that stabilizing the messenger molecules of neurogenic pain (regardless of emotional pain) means that we hurt less and function better.
Tricyclics (also good for sleep) and some SSRIs have had results that, statistically, are about as good as Lyrica. The real breakout med for long-term neuro stabilization for pain and dysautonomia is the new mixed-SNRI category, though.
There are also meds in other categories, such as bisphosphonates (again, take care of your liver and kidneys) and a class of heart meds called statins. Low-dose naltrexone and ketamine infusions are other options from the anesthesiology side. They usually require qualified specialty care to try, especially the ketamine.
If pain is localized (say, to a foot or a shoulder), then topical treatments can be terrific. Voltaren and Lidocaine patches are a great help to many. Compounding pharmacies can make up special concoctions tailored to your specific needs, containing any of the meds mentioned in the last few paragraphs.
I’ve used the word “statistically” a lot here. That’s because scientific method only tells us what the general trend for a group of people is. Statistics mean nothing in the case of the individual. What matters in the clinical setting — that is, what matters in the lives of individual patients — IS the individual. Therefore, the medical science is only a guideline, telling doctors what to start with and where to go from there.
We are all guinea pigs, because the subtle and comprehensive nature of the nervous system, and the way longstanding CRPS and other central pain diseases disrupt it, means that the only way we’ll know what works for us is to try things and see.
Your doc should take a deep breath, take a good look at your whole picture, and work with you to figure out what works for you.
Please be clear that THERE IS A WAY FORWARD. I’m certain of that. It’s just a question of finding the right way for you.
Best wishes and I hope you get a good solution soon!
As I’ve said before, much of brain-retraining has to do with speaking to the primitive parts of the brain in ways it can’t ignore.
Being overwhelmed is very common these days. So, this tool is helpful for far more than just my fellow painiacs. I originally laid this out for someone else dealing with very different issues, and realized as I did so that it was a darn good tool and I’d have to remember it for myself. It has already been a help to me, so I hope it helps others as well.
The State of Overwhelm
I can tell when I’m in the state of Overwhelm because life is just a big old mess of decisions and problems and unresolved issues which are so toweringly massive they stop making sense. My usual ability to sort and prioritize and manage information freezes up, and my brain skids off into the ditch.
Once I’m in Overwhelm, it’s unreasonable to try to reason my way out of it in my usual way. Each thought is blocked by half a dozen issues backed up against it.
I’ve got to simplify. Not just that, but I need to SUPER-simplify — break it down into binary questions — that is, questions with only one of two possible answers. It’s the only way I can start managing the pile.
(What follows is a technique used in several disciplines. I’m avoiding jargon and simply using the words I use in conversation.)
The roadmap out of Overwhelm
When I was rebuilding my credit, the first thing to do was to figure out what I really owed, and what someone else was supposed to pay. This is a good template for dealing with Overwhelm.
First, whose job is it, really?
When I get overwhelmed, it’s hard to tell what’s my responsibility and what’s really someone else’s. It feels like this:
All the jobs are kind of muddled around in the space and there are too many jobs and not enough space.
When I draw a mental barrier between the two, things suddenly start to clear up:
Notice that, at this point, I don’t need to know who the “someone else” is; the first step is to be clear about whether it’s my job or not.
Managing my care?
Ordering tests and prescribing meds?
Testing those meds on my system, tracking their benefits and drawbacks, and updating the prescriber?
Keeping the dishes clean?
Keeping the outside steps de-iced?
(It’s my one outdoor job, and my partner does everything that I can’t and a lot that I shouldn’t, so I bundle up and take care of the steps without a whimper.)
Second, is it something volunteers can do or is it a professional job?
This is an important distinction.
When in doubt, upgrade.
Take care not to abuse the skills of your volunteers. You may know lawyers, counselors, accountants, and so forth, but that doesn’t make it right to ask for free professional services from them, except under unusual circumstances.
If those who help me out aren’t being paid (either by an agency/employer or by me), then they’re a volunteer, regardless of the skills they have.
I tread as lightly as I can on my volunteers. It’s an important long-term goal not to alienate them, but to keep them comfortable with me and happy to stick around.
The corollary is, I have high standards for my professionals, and hold them to those standards with all the clarity-with-courtesy I can manage. I have no hesitation about firing someone who consistently fails to measure up.
I put a lot of legwork into choosing my doctors. Here’s an overview of the process and links I used a few years ago: How I find my doctors
It’s certainly worth the time and effort to find good people who can do justice to your life and your needs. The question is whether you can find the slack. I hope so.
Fix the heater?
Put us up for a night until it’s fixed?
Give hugs, tea, and sympathy when I’m recently bereaved?
Train me in how to get my brain to reprocess deep pain (and the staggering scope of loss associated with it) without short-circuiting?
This is definitely not for volunteers; too much knowledge about neuropsych and too much investment of time is required.
Professional level brain & mind care
For some things, talking to a friend, doing something strenuous, or meditating a lot, is enough to allow a person to heal heart and mind. Life itself is generally a good therapist.
Some things are too complex, too deep, or too dangerous for amateurs. Despite our longstanding social taboos, people with recurring trauma (like central pain or abusive relationships) or PTSD (like survivors of war or child abuse or those who’ve been through worker’s compensation or disability applications on top of a devastating condition) are right and smart to get highly-qualified care for resolving the damage that these things do to our minds and our brains. The damage is not imaginary, and sheer force of will is not a great tool for healing it.
It CAN be healed, even the worst of it. It does NOT require chewing over the past; in fact, that’s often avoided in modern trauma counseling, because that can do to the PTSD brain roughly what our recurring pain does to CRPS brains.
Some techniques DO re-map and re-train the brain to make room for more stability, more healthiness, and move even a CRPS’d brain closer to a normal state.
Less pain! More joy! Less instability! More abilities 🙂
Some keywords for finding relevant mental health professionals: trauma-informed, PTSD, pain psychology. These are jargon terms that usually indicate the professional understands how these profound experiences affect our brains, and how that can be rewound or reworked to a better state.
Another thing you can do
It helps to vote for legislators who see the value in health care, including mental health care. Conservative estimates say that each $1 spent on care saves between $10 and $100 in downstream costs (ER visits, health costs, police activity, lost productivity, lost wages, family impact, etc.) Middle-of-the-road estimates place the savings much higher.
Something to think about, in times like these.
Find your legislators here and let them know what you think:
In the US, here’s where you find national, state, and local legislator info: www.usa.gov
This is one of several blog posts I drafted late last year and got distracted from.
This isn’t the duckiest or most amusing one to read, but it’s so important for so many that I’m posting it anyway. (My mother will probably want to give this one a miss.)
This level of fundamental-ness has a certain appeal in the depth of winter.
Fortunately for me, I don’t have too much trouble with existential questions. At a certain point, when everything I thought defined me had been blasted away, and in my mind there was not a single structure left that held a fragment of my old self, and all I saw stretching away to the mental horizon was blasted mud and broken stone and shapeless lumps and rot… I asked myself, “None of ‘me’ is left. Who am I?” And I realized that something was standing there, doing the asking.
That was my answer: I’m what is left after everything has been blasted away. I’m the immanent awareness, unable to be seen or described, simply because only less-permanent things can be seen or described.
As I think about that last sentence, I realize why objects lost their fascination for me. It was weirdly easy to get rid of gorgeous and glorious things I could no longer afford to keep. A couple of them I still miss, like my old bedstead (birdseye maple, passed down from my grandmother), but very few.
Things did get worse for awhile, and only curiosity kept me alive. (I simply had to know how the story went.) It propelled me through the work of surviving when my body had failed.
Angels appeared just before it was too late — several times; my life was a solid group effort — and eventually I fled the area and got my disability check (yes they were related) and could afford to survive. I have some photos that seem ethereal still, I look so nearly gone, smiling back from the edge of the grave, happy I don’t have to take that last step.
As usual, lately, I’ve wandered off-course.
My ability to track a tale (remember I survived the impossible because I had to see how the story went?) is enfeebled. It’s barely tottering along on one of those cumbersome canes with 4 feet, too heavy to lift and too necessary to leave behind.
I grind to a halt in my post, forgetting what I started this for, but this time, I’m letting you in on the secret. This blog is not retired, and being incapacitated has not excused me before, as a flick back would show. Or even when I was blowing bubbles.
I’m approaching this winter with the determination that it will be different than the last, which was an endurance exercise — one that went on for 9 months, as Spring never sprung and my Summer was clouded by meningitis.
So far, I’m getting more physiotherapy, more outings, and even have a weekly pain group I meet with. The higher level of activity is key; because exercise is so important for healing and supporting the brain, I have to find ways to stay active, despite the obvious drawbacks for someone with roaring sensory and cardiovascular issues to leaving the house during a New England winter.
I’m pleased with that. Yay, me!
Now for the other part.
Too much exercise is poisonous, because I have a solid case of exercise intolerance. I can safely walk less than a mile, which really irritates me. It takes that long just to warm up!
Also, drawing and sketching is back to being hard work. For awhile there, sketches flew out from under my pencil like they’d been crowded in there too long. Now, it’s stick figures with bad hair. I draw anyway now and then, because it’s better to keep trying than to give up altogether.
I don’t want to exercise too little or draw badly, but I do it anyway. Why? Because there’s always an afterwards, and I still have to work on influencing an “afterwards” I want.
Meanwhile, as my ability to juggle logistics is holding ground, my ability to juggle language is slipping.
After I was a nurse, I was a writer. Before I was a nurse, I was a writer. I started calling myself a writer before the age of 10, and started rescuing and healing animals shortly after.
I’m crashing into the stupefying question: “What am I, if I’m not a writer?” I feel like nothing without that. I feel like an intrusive blob of snot on the face of the earth, out of purpose and out of place and not very pleasant to have around.
My immanent awareness looks on as my sense of self weeps helplessly. It is what it is. I am what I am… whatever that is. That will always be true, even as everything else changes.
Meanwhile, though my strength and endurance are rather better than I’d hoped, my blood pressure and pulse are less stable. One more set of variables (or issues) to chase down, one more group of tests to orchestrate, one more set of diagnostic efforts to get through, one more possible adjustment to my regime to figure out, integrate, and absorb.
By the way, that lower abdominal pain has no treatable cause. Nothing to be done but roll it into the bundle of issues (or variables) to manage and work around. Every. Freaking. Day.
This is what it’s like for me to head into winter.
A cousin and I promised each other that we’d live forever until the day we die. That agreement still stands, but gee whiz, could this be a little less tiresomely complex??
Update: And here I am, 2 months later, writing again. Still waiting for drawing to come back, though.
Digesting my food is hard work now, again. Always something.
After talking with patients, doctors, and loved ones — and, as a trained observer, carefully noticing the changes in posture, expression, and tone as I’ve done so — I’ve arrived at the following conclusion. I realize it flies in the face of current accepted usage, but there are some things wrong with current accepted usage, and I don’t mind saying so.
/SeeYarP’Yes/ is not that hard to say.
No, it’s not proper to call it CRiPS unless you yourself have it. This is partly because “crips” is a term of abuse for disabled people and using the term for a particular set of disabled people won’t change that, and partly because Crips is the name of a violent organized crime group originating from Southern California. Neither is an appropriate form of address for those who have the most disruptive and intransigent pain disease known to science, and can’t perpetrate violence because of the devastation it wreaks in their own bodies.
Those who have this disease sure don’t need to be subliminally messaged with either association.
I understand that young docs are being trained to use the term in order to remind themselves that it is, in fact, a disabling disease. My view is that, if you’re smart enough to graduate from medical school, you’re smart enough to remember that disruption of the central nervous system can be pretty freaking disabling, in CRPS as in spinal injury or Alzheimer’s or anything else that disrupts the normal structure, chemistry, and behavior of the central nervous system.
The fact that the current name focuses on “pain” is a problem of nomenclature, which will change again as it often has since the year 1548 when it was first described by Ambroise Paré, father of forensic medicine and physician to the French court at the time. (Look him up — great guy. Prefigured that outstanding physician and gifted schmooze-meister Dr. Silas Weir by over 300 years.)
CRaPS, as in the game of chance, is not recommended. It sounds like a vulgar term for bowel excretions, which is — if possible — even more inappropriate. It’s certainly a “crappy” disease, but having said that, it’s time to move on and not keep reminding someone that they feel (and believe they look) like shit.
Of course your CRPS patients say they don’t mind. Check the power differential; their ability to bear to live is in your hands, doctor/loved one, so they’re highly motivated to be nice and go along with anything that doesn’t involve an immediate threat. They want you to feel good about them, so they will laugh along with you, however unreal it feels.
Have some decency — don’t call them or their disease CRiPS or CRaPS, even if they say it’s okay. They don’t need to feel any worse than they already do.
The CRPS patients can call it whatever they like, because only they know how bad it really is, and have the right — and need — to cuss it now and then.
/SeeYarP’Yes/ is not that hard to say. It’s only 4 syllables, like “pain diseases” or “really bad day.” It’s 20% shorter than the word “dehumanizing.”
This moment of intellectual — and emotional — honesty has been brought to you by a nightmare I woke up with this morning. My nightmares are a direct result of my disordered central nervous system, which can no longer process things normally and has to roil around and tear up the pavement in between the constant push-back and re-organization that takes place in my waking state.
It’s pretty crappy, not to mention crippling. But I rise above it, yet again, as I intend to do every day until the day I die. I sure appreciate anything others can do to avoid making that harder.
I’m now attending a weekly meeting of fellow pain patients in the area. It’s very good. A few things came up which I felt confident to share with the group and am now sharing with you, because the body of info is so useful… even if it’s only connected “under the hood.”
Pain care in the western New England region
Here are the local resources I can (to some degree) recommend. Those of you from other states and regions, please feel free to make recommendations in the comments! 🙂
Baystate Pain Management
There’s a Pain Management Center in Greenfield, MA, which I never knew about. It describes itself as “interventional”, meaning their focus is on procedures and injections and the like. (This means they aren’t currently doing much with the material mentioned in the Readings heading, but that may change in time.) They also provide PT and acupuncture, the latter only at the Springfield site. https://www.baystatehealth.org/services/pain-management-center
The Springfield site is the old home of a doctor I’ve mentioned before and don’t want to mention again. I noticed they don’t list staff on their current web page, but I do intend to follow up and learn a bit more about their current practitioners.
My doc, Lloyd Saberski, is intellectually conservative, and will do nothing that has a fair chance of hurting the patient. (Since I tend to be more gung-ho, I consider his approach a necessary complement to mine.)
There are a couple of other specialties (stem cell treatment and a weight-loss thingy) attached to the clinic, which is probably how they stay in business despite putting something as rare, time-intensive, & low-paying as advanced pain diagnosis at the center of the practice. I have never had the least hint of being nudged towards either of those; rather, Dr. Saberski specifically mentioned once that stem-cell treatment was still an immature modality with only a few conditions it was proven for, and that it would be totally unsuitable for me. Despite my poundage, he has never mentioned weight-loss, not even with a glance.
Readings on brain plasticity, with guidance on pushing back
I consider this the best lowdown on trauma gets put in place into the brain & body (and why this shows that Worker’s Comp and the insurance industry are specifically trying to destroy us, so don’t buy their evil story about you): “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk
It’s pretty science-y, so feel free to start with other authors like Pat Ogden or those listed below.
He’s a doc who developed central pain in himself, realized the current medicine on it was, um, let’s call it ill-informed, and eventually turned his extensive study on the subject into accessible material for the rest of us. He’s a good story-teller with an eye for the compelling detail that makes his point. He has two books out, both of them excellent, informative, and inspiring, avoiding all the usual pitfalls of physicians who like to write. He stays on topic, refers to the science, defers to the patient’s experience, and each side-trip turns out to be relevant and interesting.
I now mentally push my pain back up my spine and squish down on the pain regions in my brain every time I think of it 🙂 Week 2 — 4 more to go! Read more from him to understand what that’s about.
Credited with developing one of the most-recognized techniques (called EMDR) for accessing the neurobiology of distress and reprogramming the mind/body response to it. Some of her work is very clinical, and some of it is designed for anyone to pick up and use for themselves. Be aware that EMDR techniques tend to be multi-stage processes, and the “at home” techniques involve a little advance work to set up your mental safety-net. (I did that during my designated meditation time, which I use for any solitary mental healing work.) With that done, you have a lot of options later for catching yourself and quickly restoring your ability to cope.
An outstandingly practical person with tremendous insight and depth, she is one of the founders & leaders in the field of understanding how ghastly experiences interact with the brain, and how the individual can get consciously involved and get back in control of these systems.
Note: These last two skillful practitioners produce, not only video clips and their defining books, but also accessible articles, textbooks, narratives, and workbooks for both professionals and patients. This provides many ways to get into their information, whatever your sensory learning mode and attention span, so you can see what works for you.
A lucid speaker and explainer with many videos and a couple of books, especially (but not exclusively) for brain-science nerds. He co-authored several additional books that turn his theory into practical tools and techniques to use in real life. He focuses on hot issues for painiacs and those who love us: re-training our brains to identify and embrace the feeling of safety, developing healthy relationships in spite of twitchy brain responses, and re-developing our neurological coordination so we can get back in charge of ourselves.
Multiple access-points to get to the same root issues of healing our neurobiology
These brilliant practitioners have come up with different ways to access and engage with our natural neurobiological wiring, in order to manage our own brain and body responses better. Many of them focus on trauma recovery rather than the ongoing disruption of central pain etc, but, where that’s the case, I mentally edit for ongoing “trauma” (which ongoing pain is, strictly speaking), and I find considerable insight and useful techniques there. Great stuff. Also, if you’ve had awful things happen in your life, you may find a useful healing approach in one or more of their works.
Resources & info in this blog
I’ve been keeping a blog for ~9 years, though the earlier years got lost in a move. (Just as well; I was flailing.) Questions I could probably bore you to tears answering in person…
As I say elsewhere in this blog, it’s a bit of work to generate the first set of documents, but maintaining them is easy, and the payoff in personal poise and doctor response is tremendous.
Why is sitting in a moving car for hours so rotten?
Oh, boy, let me tell you what I’ve found about this! I think of it as 4 main issues, each of which I’ve developed ways to mitigate for my own case:
Our skin (where all those peripheral nerve sensors hang out) is hardly moving and half of it is pretty much unable to breathe, due to the mechanical pressure of our limbs against our bodies and the seat against our backs & thighs.
Hungry skin, with cellular & intestinal metabolic waste building up, no way to flush itself, with unhappy sensors, makes for serious discomfort.
I find a good song and dance & gently gyrate in my seat :))
Believe it or not, cars (especially American cars, sadly) are made of plastics that release molecules, which is called outgasing. Most plastics (including fabrics) outgas, meaning that molecules evaporate off the surface and escape into the atmosphere. These aren’t body-friendly molecules. Variously, they may interfere with endocrine (hormones) and aprocrine (sweating) activity. Many are neurotoxic, capable (depending on individual factors) of reducing impulse control, spiking irritation, and triggering emotional and physical pain. (Many of the studies around this have disappeared from the web, which somehow doesn’t surprise me. Sigh.) This lessens as cars age, but doesn’t go away as long as there is plastic, car fabric, foam, treated leather, varnish, etc, in the car.
The vehicle itself compounds all the skin stuff, and adds a constant low-dose exposure to neurotoxins.
Even in cold weather, I roll down all the windows every hour or so and purge the air in the car.
Our joints are not able to move much. The position, with the hips rotated slightly back, the shoulders reflexively rolled slightly forward to compensate, and not much room to do otherwise, is an unnatural position to be strapped into. It reduces ordinary motion, CSF/lymphatic flow, and nerve transmission, especially through the hips and spine. Our joints carry a lot of sensors, including those for blood pressure and balance; having them stuck in one position (while we’re breathing outgas, of course) makes the sensors unhappy, contributing to that general sense of yucky unpleasantness.
Unhealthy stasis in the joints, spine, and circulating body fluids, including CSF, lymph, and blood. This contributes to a central (brain & spine based) body-unhappiness.
When I’m driving alone, I stop every hour and, at least, stretch and move until I feel okay, or do t’ai chi/qi gong/yoga if I feel safe enough. When I’m being driven, we stop every 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 of an hour. We usually stop for 20-30 minutes, unless we’re in a real hurry, in which case it’s 15. I don’t tolerate less.
Mitigation bonus: stopping this often means I can get potty breaks, making it easier to stay hydrated and up on my electrolytes — which makes everything more bearable and significantly reduces recovery time.
For many of us, vibration is a problem. It certainly stimulates the nervous system, especially in the spine and feet, and wherever you’re touching the structure of the car.
Whether vibration itself is obnoxious or not, car vibration is irregularly irregular, having no consistent pattern whatsoever. This means my brain/body has no chance of anticipating or compensating for the rhythm of it, putting my body in a constant state of jolt. I find it exhausting, and it pushes up my dysautonomia as well as my pain.
Central stimulation in a relentlessly irregular vibrating pattern can be really harsh.
I adapted the inside of my car to reduce my exposure to seat outgas, improve airflow to my skin, and cut steering wheel and seat vibration to manageable levels. I also chose my car carefully to get maximum smoothness & good shocks in the first place.
To cut a long story short, I wound up with insufficient medication before my next pain doc appointment, and had to cobble together my full dose by using 3 smaller-dose tablets. Periodically over the last month, I’ve been peering quizzically into my bottle and wondering if all those little pills were going to last long enough.
Late last week, I finally had few enough that I could count them. (Due to perceptual issues, looking at a lot of little identical objects makes my eyes swivel, and I can’t keep track of them, even if I pull them out a few at a time. They appear to dance and swim without any help.)
Well, I had a problem. I couldn’t parse what to do about it because I didn’t know who to ask. My pain doc had been a bit more high-handed than usual at my last appointment, so I didn’t expect sympathy there, especially as it implied his math was wrong. I knew my GP would feel understandably uncomfortable prescribing a med he didn’t know well and didn’t normally use, which was normally prescribed by a high-flying specialist in a narrow discipline. That’s a lousy position to put a GP in.
So, regardless of the record heat and shocking floods elsewhere, New England has been cooler than usual, perpetually cloudy, with the Spring rain pattern (3 days and nights of constant rain, one and a half days of sun, a day or two of mostly clouds, 3 days and nights of constant rain, rinse and repeat.) This does tie in — really.
The reason it ties in is because summer gives me my recovery time, which involves sun and warmth and outdoor activity. 3 months of sun, warmth, and outdoor activity is what makes me strong enough to endure a New England winter.
It was so gloomy and chilly this summer, we dug up the money to go to California to recharge our bodies’ batteries. That didn’t go according to plan at all. As some of you know, I had viral meningitis from the day after we landed to 2 days before we left.
So, not much recovery, just a whole heaping helping of extra damage to recover from!
Then, of course, I had a relapse 10 days later, just in case I was getting too perky.
This summer has left me with a brain that’s just not up to par. So, rather than doing my usual thing of targeting the issue and parsing its components and figuring out what solution solves most of the elements, I … froze.
I started cutting the third of the 3 little pills in half, and taking two and a half, so I could buy a little time to think. Since that works out to my normal summertime dose, I didn’t question it much. It occurred to me, just as I’m writing this, that it has really crippled my ability to think, so that was not my usual problem-solving level of skill. Sigh.
I honestly can’t remember how I wound up on the phone with my doctor’s office on Friday. Wait, after 5 minutes’ cogitation, I do: I hadn’t heard from referrals my primary doc was supposed to have written 2 weeks before. Usually right on top of things, he had documented that he intended to make the referrals, but forgotten to enter the orders to do so.
The compassionate office lady asked how I was, and it wasn’t until then that I said, “Actually, I’m kind of in a bind,” and explained about the meds. To my complete lack of surprise, given how things have been going, it turns out my primary doc is on vacation this coming week. She left a note for whoever’s covering for him.
Since then, of course, I’ve been trying to work out whether I should call during the weekend, when coverage is even weirder and less accountable, or wait until Tuesday and the first day of business this week, and try to coherently answer the question of why I didn’t call sooner, and hope and plead to get my meds from someone who doesn’t know me and is working too hard to feel for one more sad case.
So … I’m froze.
Meanwhile, my feelings and my disease-driven propensity to worry paralyzingly, are all honed to a ridiculous edge. Once my pills get past the cannon-ball feeling in my stomach (almost past the half hour mark; 15 minutes to go) I’m going to do an hour of meditation, which I expect to roughly track the pattern of the meditation I did during the meningitis episode: 20 minutes of pure inward flail, breathing quietly while my mind and emotions just went off like a carton of firecrackers spilled on a brush fire; then, once that calmed down, my thoughts chased each other like frantic squirrels for another 20, not slowing appreciably until the last 2 or 3 minutes; then 10 minutes of one or two issues or ideas holding fairly still, allowing me to turn it over until it’s transformed into something peaceful by the pure attention; and then the rest, finally, gradually, moving into a pure and floating calm.
They say that one should meditate for an hour every day. If you don’t have the time for that, make it two hours. I hold this as a constant goal. Sadly for me, I can normally only push myself to sit down and shut up like that when things are so bad all I can think to do otherwise is scream.
I need to work on that.
This was going to be the year I learned to meditate and do t’ai chi pretty much daily, no matter what level of peace and calm there was in my life. I’m embarrassed that, even at my age, I still seem to need some chaos to let me bring enough pressure to bear on myself that I’ll do these key self-care activities at all.
Something to mull over in the contemplation stage of some meditation!
Remapping and the primitive brain are key concepts that come up often for people with chronic pain — though we don’t always know it. These underlie some treatment strategies that seem, at on the surface, anything from absurd to cruel from the perspective of the stressed patient. They also underlie a couple of those chronic misunderstandings between medical people and non-medical people, which are especially painful when the non-medical person is a chronic pain patient. I hope this will go some way towards creating better communication between palliative-care doctors and chronic-pain patients.
First, I’ll go over a few fundamentals. Naturally, I’ll translate the dense stuff into Plain English.
Basic brain structure
The brain has sections which have different jobs, but communicate intensely with the others. It’s impossible to view them either as entirely separate or entirely connected; they’re simultaneously distinct, and inter-linked.
Providers, I’m going to oversimplify. Be warned.
The hindbrain, or medulla and cerebellum, manage the business of pulse, respirations, and the kind of moment-by-moment activities of survival we don’t even think about. The cerebellum and cerebrum take in information about our environment, check for reflex response, compare it to learned and instinctual information and decide what to do about it. The cerebral cortex is where we start thinking we’re in human territory, because this is where much of our actual thinking takes place, linked into deeper structures in order to turn into words and deeds. Our thinking brain is very much in the minority and, whether it knows it or not, conscious thinking only happens on top of a great deal of unthinking response which has already happened.
That’s the key, right there. The thinking brain is never isolated, even though we sometimes act as if it can operate alone.
Think about the meaning of the word “objective”, then think about how that can possibly apply to thoughts and perceptions channeled by a mind that’s driven by unackowledged forces at inaccessible levels. Objectivity is only an aspiration, not a rational goal, but that’s too often forgotten or ignored.
When scientists forget this, it explains a lot about conventional medicine’s blind spots, certain doctor-patient miscommunications, and many crucial limitations of scientific method.
When the rest of us forget it, we’re already reacting on the basis of the primitive brain’s unthinking push. We lose our capacity for any objectivity right when we need it most.
The central nervous system (CNS) is “plastic”, a term in Medical Jargon which means that it morphs and changes to meet the requirements of whatever the CNS thinks is going on.
To be more precise, the CNS doesn’t change the shape of its cord, lumps, and lines, it changes the tasks (and pertinent chemistry) of sections of cord, lump, or line, when ongoing survival seems to call for it. The term for that morphing of purpose and chemistry is “remapping.”
During fetal and childhood development, the brain and spinal cord develop into certain chunks, and those chunks learn to store and pass along information and signal responses in predictable ways. Sounds, colors, sensations, Mom’s face, Dad’s scent, sibling’s voices — these all get processed in, stored for future reference and retrieval. The information finds its home in the CNS while the brain and spine build roads and rails to carry the signals on.
In Medical Jargon, this arrangement of storage and signaling is called the brain map. Unlike most other disciplines, in neurology, the map IS the territory, and mostly it works pretty well.
Therefore, a healthy brain has a normal map of the body, including how it signals normal needs and how to meet them. As the body, signals, and needs all change, the map gets re-drawn, and that’s how the brain and spinal cord get remapped.
This is appropriate in the developing years and in times of great change when we need to adapt. Brain plasticity is important and exists for good reason. However, in chronic pain, especially with central sensitization, it goes overboard.
Thanks to the remapping that happens with chronic pain, the pain signals can’t stop because the chemicals that carry the signals change, so the old pathways aren’t even accessible to them. You know how trains can’t use roads, and cars can’t use railroad tracks? It’s a bit like that. Your spinal cord/brain has blacktop where it used to have rails.
In central sensitization, it means that normal signals — excitement, touch, sound, lights — can get processed, not just as emotions (wow!) or touch (hey!) or sound (oh!) or light (ah!) signals, but as pain signals (ow!), because the brain’s remapping means the normal ways of processing feelings, sensations, etc., have been partly overwritten — sometimes completely erased. It’s all pain, showing up right there in the spine and brain; pure, gruesome pain. It doesn’t come from anywhere in particular; it’s just the essence of pure pain.
Yeah, it sucks.
This is why people with chronic pain and central sensitization get so quickly overwhelmed by things that used to be fun, like music, parties, dancing, socializing, and so on. The inputs, however delightful themselves, just get shunted into the “pain” tracks right in the central nervous system.
It’s not about not wanting to have fun! It’s about not being able to bear the unnaturally high price, which is so high the fun is usually lost.
When a normal person sees one of us at a party or other event, it would be totally appropriate for them to fall to their knees in admiration and gratitude, because our level of dedication to the events we do attend is truly special.
Not that anyone ever does, nor are they expected to … but it would be perfectly appropriate if they did 🙂
The primitive brain’s role in all this
The primitive brain is one of those terms that changes meaning depending on who’s using it. So, to be clear, I use it here to mean the parts of the brain that don’t use words a lot, and that underlie all the parts that do. Very simple.
Since pain is a survival function, it has deep roots in the primitive brain. This is kind of too bad for us, because once we understand the concept of remapping, we want to learn how to re-remap, so we can push our brains back closer to normal. The catch is, this is all rather intellectual, and pushing back on pain’s remapping means that the re-remapping needs to target a lot of primitive brain, which is primal, not intellectual. The approaches that have been developed reflect this. They’re hard to keep up with, because they don’t always appeal to our higher personality characteristics. (That is, they can be repetitious, trivial-seeming, and dull.)
Let’s take a look at the underlying concepts here, so the ways we communicate with the primitive brain make more sense.
The primitive brain relies heavily on nonverbal cues. Take a look a few paragraphs back, where I was discussing how sensory signals turn into pain. I’ll repeat the section here:
…emotions (wow!) or touch (hey!) or sound (oh!) or light (ah!) signals, but as pain signals (ow!)…
See what I did there? For each type of signal, I made a pertinent sound, and drew attention to that sound by adding an exclamation point. I was totally talking to your primitive brain, there.
Most of us find we talk more easily with people who don’t have arms crossed or brows lowered. That’s the primitive brain noticing the lack of withdrawn or threatening cues. Body language is 90% of visible communication, just as tone is 90% of audible communication, and it’s rarely noticed by the cortex at all — it’s primitive brain stuff, and humans respond as reflexively as Pavlov’s dogs.
Color (for those who can see it) sends powerful signals to the primitive brain.
Interior decorators may suggest painting the marital bedroom red, because red makes the primitive brain tend to feel passions more strongly and this can improve the sex life.
Some prisons use grey (which is depressing, and slows people down) or pink (which tends to promote calm. The nice theory is, it’s the first color we saw, as light penetrated mother’s stomach wall while we were in the womb. The mean-spirited theory is, it makes grown men feel like little girls; rather than learning to control their impulses, they get emotionally emasculated. Not corrective at all.)
Here’s a classic example of good intentions: In 1991, the administrators at my hospital decided to paint the walls of our HIV unit yellow, in a conscious effort to cheer the environment and counteract the depressing nature of early-90’s existence with HIV. They should have involved caregivers in the choice of shade… after only a year, the one they chose looked just like the serous fluid oozing from a skin ulcer. Still, they meant well.
Movement is powerful. The movement we see around us and what we do, ourselves, gets plugged in very deep indeed. Movement involves the most primitive parts of our brains. Because so many of us become limited in our movement due to central pain disease, what movements we do make, and even observe, become even more important, more concentrated.
Very primitive indeed. That’s why these things can be so effective.
Putting several primitive-brain cues together: food, pills
Eating is comforting to the central nervous system for all sorts of reasons, one of which is that taking something, putting it in your mouth, and swallowing, is something we first experienced before we were even born. Also, eating good foods and taking effective medicines makes us more capable and less miserable, because of what happens afterwards to our chemistry — a powerful reinforcement of that primal reward.
The sensation of feeling better is even more compelling when being alive is unbearable at baseline.
Freud went to town over this instinctual action, but he wasn’t completely wrong.
Putting hand to mouth and swallowing is one of the most powerful primitive-brain signals we habitually engage in. (Realizing this makes me think about how I eat, fidget, and generally do hand-mouth things. I’ll be less mindless about those actions — at least for awhile — and try to give my primitive brain its due.)
This is where we get to one of the things that seems so cruel from the patient’s point of view, but makes perfect sense to the doctor seeing it from the brain’s point of view. I didn’t really get it until mulling over my recent visit, so those of you who’ve seen me saying something different before, I apologize for not having thought it through. They might not be wrong!
This was not easy to write, but for the reader, who doesn’t know what’s coming until you read it, it could be triggering. I want to insert a reminder to my fellow painiacs, for whom black-and-white thinking is very easy to fall into… Take a breath, let it out slowly, and keep in mind that there are no absolutes here, just lots of context and a few guidelines. This can be pretty tough material, but you are way, way tougher.
What we can do about this
Now that we have some idea just how powerful the primitive brain is, how easily it remaps itself once central sensitization takes hold, and how powerful the act of taking and swallowing things that make you feel better is …
Ideally, think long term
We can see why, when doctors don’t want us to ramp up our daily meds when the pain gets worse or to become too regular about taking our breakthrough meds, these things worry them. It’s too easy to program the primitive brain in pain. They see it as powerful signaling that sets the brain up for needing an outside chemical push whenever it starts acting up.
Pain patients come in all sorts, but can broadly be divided into the passive care recipients and active care participants. The latter tend to have much better prognoses and quality of life, but the nature of bitter central pain tends to suck everyone down into the former approach now and then.
Thus, the doctor has no way of knowing if the patient in front of them is currently able to be an active participant and do their disciplines first, or if they’re sufficiently overwhelmed and disabled to just reach for a pill (ow! — mmm!).
None of us is immune from mental exhaustion. However appalling their terminology may be, good docs’ instincts are founded on caring for our greater good, even when we can’t think that far ahead.
Unlike acute pain, life with chronic pain requires us to take more than one approach at the same time. (Insurance doesn’t much respect this fact, which makes it all the harder to manage!) We aren’t expected to recover, unlike those lucky so-and-so’s with ordinary acute pain, so we have to think in terms of having a life while thinking ahead to being able to live the rest of our lives in a bearable state.
This means that all of those primitive-brain approaches and re-remapping tools — eating well, keeping moving, mental rehearsal, coloring, internal arts like meditation and yoga — PLUS individually tailored pharmaceutical therapy and occasional procedures — have to be part of the picture.
Doctors can help us, but they can’t save us; we have to do as much re-remapping as possible, and contribute as little as possible to the pain’s remapping. We aren’t talking about a couple of days or even a couple of years; we have to be able to keep life as manageable as possible for however many years or decades we have left.
The painiac’s barriers to success
Considering how devastating it is to think that we’ll most likely be dealing with this all our lives, our own brain-care requires us not to think about that, because so much perfectly rational despair is waiting when we do.
It requires thinking years ahead on every aspect of our treatment. This is more than usually hard for us to do, becuase thinking too much about this aspect of our future is so counterproductive in other ways.
Nobody’s brains are set up to stay detached and rational when our nerves are running riot with pain signals and our bodies are just exhausted with it. It’s okay if this seems insanely hard, because it IS insanely hard.
This is not a normal situation! We’re rational people stuck in a complex web of relentless, irrational challenges, and we are obliged to prioritize our current survival. Just do your best! It’s all you can do!
Personally, some days, getting out of bed and doing my tea-snack-pills routine is all I can manage, and I have to be glad of that. (Things could be worse.) I realize that, good as my disciplines (and consequently my perspective) are, they aren’t always up to the job of keeping this mile-high view. Also, I’m a brain-hurt human, and I can’t necessarily keep track of all the myriad things I’m supposed to do.
This is why I seek out and travel to such astoundingly good doctors. I need them to DO what I can’t, as well as to KNOW what I don’t.
Taking more pills and feeling better is powerful retraining. Yet… There are only so many pills in the world, only so many chemical boosts that can do any good at all.
What a set-up!
Built-in pain control and building up tools
On the other hand, remember that we have other tools available to us. For one thing, the brain/spine complex has many ways of managing pain and distress which can be leveraged by a conscious and determined owner of that system. These ways, from the descending inhibitory pathway to oxytocin, endocannabinoids, and endogenous opioids, can be consciously operated and can be nudged by what we take in and do. (Go ahead and google the heck out of those terms. I don’t have enough spoons left to dig up the best links.)
They take practice to master. Not surprisingly, developing these skills can be repetitious, trivial-seeming, and dull.
Just like building a muscle, it takes work to build — rebuild — and keep on building — the ability to counter pain in ways that use what your body has already got.
Letting the primitive brain slide into taking a pill for increased pain as Plan A or B puts the kybosh on those other methods. They wither, like unused muscles.
The pain patient is left with fewer and fewer alternatives, as the years go on.
Yeah, that REALLY sucks.
The one member of the doctor-patient team who isn’t currently losing their mind to disabling pain has the perspective to think ahead, and to realize that NOT retraining the brain to go with “pill as Plan A” is crucial to ongoing survival.
They aren’t always tactful about it, of course (!). They learned it in terms of Pavlov’s dog, and nobody likes being compared to a slobbering animal, so the usual explanation is deeply offensive. I hope they’ll figure that out and start using terms like “primitive brain” and “primal reflexes” and so forth, rather than “operant conditioning”, let alone “Pavlov’s dog.” Sigh.
This conflict of ongoing needs and current distress often winds up painting the doctor-patient team into a corner: the patient’s desperation may lead them to remap their brain to need something it can no longer make for itself, while the doc is not able to communicate real concerns effectively (between their own language gap and the patient’s neurological chaos) but winds up patronizing the patient to a standstill.
Where to go from here
So, when your doc says, “Don’t pill up,” this is why. They’re worried sick that you might be reaching for pills as the easiest fix — just like most normal people do. Just as they do, when they’ve got an infection or allergies. These days, reaching for a pill to solve a medical problem is the normal thing to do. That’s why it’s a natural assumption for them to make.
I know my readers are a lot better informed and more skilled at self-care than most people. So, if you find yourself having this kind of conversation with your doctor, pause a moment, take a breath, exhale slowly, and explain:
You understand the concern about screwing up your body’s reward-signaling,
You’d like them to know you’ve been using your alternate methods for days/weeks/whatever, and
The pills were the last ditch effort.
That’s exactly what breakthrough meds and med increases are for — last-ditch efforts when our home remedies and personal strategies can no longer meet our minimal requirements.
You may have to say this every time. (I do.) That’s okay; it shows they think of your survival before they remember their manners. These docs are seriously worried that you’ll wind up beyond the ability of modern medicine to do anything for you. (We want docs who worry for us!)
Some of us wind up there anyway, as we’re all well aware from our networks. Our best bet (though there are no guarantees) is to explore, discover, and refine the set of non-pharmaceutical management techniques that offer each of us, individually, the most manageable level of trouble/expense which give us the best results. We’re all neurologically different, so we have to develop our “toolkits” on the basis of what works for ourselves.
Suzanne Stewart (among others) at National Pain Report, intelligence diligently applied;
For the multiply allergic or drug-problematic, Taming the Beast, out of Canada, for more on home management and strategies that are as nontoxic as possible, discussed as pleasantly as possible.
These blogs all discuss strategies that are compatible — or at least not incompatible — with current science.
In the end, what tools matter to you is what tools work for you. You don’t owe anyone any explanations for those. It’s your body, your life, and you who have to face the consequences of every strategy used in your case. Might as well own it.
Other “ancillary” or “alternative” therapies
Once you include strategies and therapies outside your doctor’s bailiwick, it’s not fair to ask the doctor if they think it will help. They’re already doing what they think will help. Conventional mainstream medicine names these techniques with terms that specifically put them off to the side, because that’s where they believe these things belong, so it’s normal and appropriate for conventional practitioners to have a bit of trouble making sense of them.
For the pain patient, these strategies are likely to take more time and attention than conventional care, but only because they are so necessary to living with central disruption and pain.
As long as these therapies don’t disrupt or interfere with your medical care, then the physician’s opinion is not relevant; your experience with that therapy is.
This brings us to a form of intellectual integrity which many well-educated people have trouble with. Ready? Here goes:
Others’ belief systems are not relevant to your personal experience of less pain and greater function.
Even if the “others” are care providers, and even if their belief systems are based on the current state of our limited and ever-changing model of science.
The only proof we need, here at the sharp end of reality, is what kind of good something does, and what kind of bad it doesn’t do, for the only body we’re in.
If it helps, doesn’t hurt, and you can access it, success! It’s in your toolkit!
Below is a short table of “alternative” therapies and modalities I’ve used with success, with annotations about what I learned about how to make the most of my benefit from them. (With apologies for the weird formatting.)
Essential. Our brains are the most susceptible organ in the body to deficits. Air, food, and water underlie everything our brains do. Immune activity in the gut is becoming a hot issue for study, as the results can be multi-system and devastating. Nutrition is the first and most important step, in my view, to managing a life with serious illness. Eliminating or reducing immune triggers, maximizing nutrition within your practical limits, and being able to absorb and process your food, are key to getting your body to work right again.
As those of you who’ve checked the science know, nerves can’t work without mitochondria, and mitochondria can’t work without antioxidants. The only known preventive strategy for CRPS is vitamin C in frequent small doses for 2 weeks before surgery and 3 months after surgery or trauma. Vitamin C! So yes, nutrition is the base of everything. This also means, beware! Nutrition can interact and have side effects. Brassicas and soy can deplete the thyroid. Co-Q 10 interacts with Lexapro, a common neurochemical modulator used for central pain and depression. Check with your pharmacist.
The practitioner needs long experience to avoid accidental damage, plus specific training and experience with central sensitization. (I use LAc’s with over 20 years’ experience.) Patient needs realistic expectations and a pragmatic list of attainable goals: anxiety control, sleep/wake improvement, temp/sweat stabilization, digestive support, wound healing, whatever your practical concerns are.
Acupuncture is extremely sophisticated. Its methodological groundwork was being laid before my European ancestors even figured out where babies came from. Because of that sophistication, experience counts, because some of what they evaluate is very subtle. Inappropriate acupuncture can make local or central pain worse, so do be mindful and pay attention to the care you’re getting.
Can be GREAT for pain. It’s more “tunable” than many practitioners realize. If you have dysautonomia or suspect any other form of central disruption/transformation/sensitization, be sure to tell them: “Use SHK, and lots of it. CKR can be bad for central nervous system disruption.” Their likely reply is, “But Reiki goes where it’s needed; it can’t hurt.” The response to that is, “Reiki gets attracted by need. However, more than a touch of CKR can be like warming hands by pouring burning fuel on them. SHK is more stabilizing, and that’s what’s effective. CKR is great for a final ‘coat’ afterwards, but not for the main treatment.” (CKR and SHK are different “flavors” or “types” of Reiki energy.) I figured this out with the assistance of other Reiki 2 practitioners and other centrally sensitized volunteers. It’s absolutely consistent, both for in-person and distance work.
Level matters. A Level 1 practitioner normally needs to work on only themselves. If you have Level 1, consider working towards Level 2, as the rewards can be considerable. Level 2, 3, and Master practitioners can send transformative Reiki. Many massage therapists are also Reiki practitioners.
Therapeutic Touch ™
Came out of the nursing profession from a nurse-scientist who got some initial studies funded. Blood tests were so good it was unreal. Usually done by RNs. Usually helpful with pain, digestive problems, mobility, and wound healing.
May be available in-hospital, sometimes through private practice. Sometimes massage therapists get cross-certified in TT.
Be prepared for some rudeness if you tell people you use this. Its principles are founded on quantum physics (something called “signal propagation”) and conventional medicine still depends on Newtonian physics, which is 600 years old; predictable, but limited. Anyway, I strongly recommend getting competent, qualified help in working out what works for you. Hypericum perforatum is widely used for nerve pain, but it can go either way for us. It used to help me significantly but now my body flips it about half the time and it makes the pain dig in, so I no longer use it. Ignatia amara can help calm that emotional storm that comes with too much stimulation, surprise, or pain. It also eases my bursts of panic. I get great results consistently. I use Arnica pills for soft tissue trauma (which, for me, is a body-wide event), and heal in 1/4 the time with about 1/6 the pain of what happens when I don’t! Many have great results from Rescue Remedy ™; for me, it just calms my mood, but for my housemate, it brings her blood pressure down from the sky and cuts her pain. We’re all different.
As with Reiki, some say that “it can’t hurt”, but that isn’t correct for the centrally sensitized. Keeping logs of how you respond to each remedy is an excellent idea. Your diligence can result in a handful of outstanding remedies that help you enormously and very quickly.
These are the precursors to conventional mainstream medicine. Therefore, they’re a double-edged sword. Assume that everything interacts with something in conventional medicine (except possibly chamomile); know your interactions for what you use. Everything has side effects, although, with that said, whole herbs tend to buffer their own bad effects better than purified extracts. Freshness matters; potency varies. This means that, if you’re interested in the potentially vast bouquet of beneficial herbal support available, either start when you’re young and healthy with a great teacher (as I did) or find a very experienced practitioner with experience treating central sensitization.
Expect to do a lot of homework researching brands and regions and preparations, in your own defense. The market is huge and very aggressive. You are your own guinea pig, so keep track of effects, doses, potency (which you’ll have to figure by color, scent, and taste) if you’re wildcrafting or growing your own. Be wise with your herbs, and they can reward you.
Do your due diligence
As the blunt hints in that table suggest, there is no such thing as a free ride or a guaranteed fix — not even any such thing as “It can’t hurt you!”, especially when central sensitization is part of the picture.
Given all the side effects of our meds, the mistakes by highly qualified physicians, and the errors in surgery, not to mention the rank company of practitioners like Scott Reuben who get rich by urinating in the well of science, these characteristics of not being harmless don’t distinguish “alternative” methods from “conventional” medicine at all, from the patient’s point of view. It’s all risk, and nobody bears it as much as we do.
The obvious corollary is that there are highly qualified practitioners of these therapies too. There’s no substitute for good training and lots of experience, so look for those who’ve studied their disciplines long and hard, and remain enthusiastic about their field. These are the ones who can provide the best help and guidance.
Another handy fact is that there is a lot more information available on these therapies, at a much greater level of detail, to the determined pain patient. We don’t need medical school access or memberships costing thousands we don’t have, to access articles and reports (not to mention extensive fluff and pretty pictures) about physiotherapy, massage, TT, acupuncture, and any herb you care to name. Good resources for checking interactions with medication and devices are there with a little digging. The vocabulary and style is far more approachable. A bit of common sense and occasionally a friendly nudge from a cohort can help us screen out most of the rubbish.
After that, it’s back to trial and re-trial and lots of notes, the reality of patient-hood, which is based on empiricism out of necessity: WHATEVER WORKS FOR YOU IS WHAT MATTERS, NOT WHAT ANYONE BELIEVES “SHOULD” WORK.
As with medicine and surgery, the final sanity check and the final decision is up to you, the patient. It’s always up to you.
May our brains and spinal cords become more stable, less reactive, and ever closer to normal!
I used to run between 3 and 12 miles, 3 to 5 times per week. Not so much because I wanted to be One Of Those Running Addicts, charging along with a ghastly snarl carved into their faces while insisting they were having a marvelous time. Initially, because I had to dump the stress from my nursing job without killing anyone, because there wasn’t enough Haagen Dasz in the world to smooth the edges of HIV care in 1991 or of working the only public ER in Washington, DC. Later, simply because it was fun, after the first few weeks of adjusting to the initial effort. When I had had to give up nursing due to illness, recovered my lung function eventually, then was burying someone I loved every other month while I learned to handle programming software enough to write about it, I needed a bit of fun.
Well, that was depressing! I sometimes forget that having an eventful life can correspond to having a catalog of horrors in the rearview mirror. It’s not all horrors, really, and my natural bent towards finding beauty in everyday life became well developed, as I dove into the beauties (or the work) of the moment as a coping skill, and then eventually because it’s so rewarding.
At that time my usual trail was up hill and down dale through a redwood preserve — to misquote William Allingham, “Up the airy redwoods, down the mucky glen.” Great for the calves.
More to the point, getting out before work meant I could watch the sun touch the treetops high above, slowly stroking glowing gold down over their dusky purple and blue-green, each luminous inch bringing the birds roosting at that level to life, shrieking their fool heads off like this was the first time ever and they just couldn’t believe it!
THAT was definitely fun.
Speaking of fun: I’ve been reading thriller/adventure stories by an author who’s also an old pal. Like most thrillers and adventures, the characters are annoyingly fit. Unlike most thrillers and adventures, the characters have actual personalities (not just a set of quirks laid over a monotonously steely outlook), with the touch of weirdness I see in the people I’m drawn to, if I look closely enough. I certainly see it in myself.
These days, I have trouble identifying with fit, but I identify with weird just fine.
Suddenly, I couldn’t stand it any more. I got up, put on my sturdiest foundation garment, added a couple layers over that (it’s still chilly and soggy here) and went for a walk. My old, solid stride came back, the one that propelled my blonde fluffy self safely through the Tenderloin in SF and the drug commons of DC, with no more remark than, “Marines? Special Forces? How much do you bench press?” (The last was unusual, and actually made me pause to try and remember.)
I noted which clothes I went to put on, and moved them toward the door so it’ll be quicker to get dressed next time.
I forgot to stretch out afterwards, and getting up from this chair a minute ago was a useful reminder of the absolutely essential need to do so. Stiffening up happens!
I overdid a few days ago and it took 2 days to recover, so I know I have some exercise intolerance. I’m being careful (within the limits of my personality.) So far so good, and if I haven’t crashed and burned by this evening, I’ll know I chose the correct level of activity, and can increase first my distance, and then my intensity, by increments of no more than 10% at a time.
The tiny incrementation is frustrating for a former muscle-head, but I’m old enough (at last!) to know that little strokes really do fell great oaks, that the future will come anyway and I might as well be better for it, and the way to make that happen is to work at my margins and gradually, gently, persistently, open them out.
I don’t dream of marathons, but nor do I count them out. I don’t count them at all. I walk (briskly and sturdily) the dirt roads through my forests, and that’s enough for now, while leaving me plenty of room to grow into.