Healing our bodies, and the things that ripple across generations

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A little over a year ago, I started a second blog to focus on what I’d come to think of as this weird hip problem I’d had for years that no one seemed to understand (sacroiliac joint dysfunction).

Among friends, I usually tried not to talk about it too much, because I didn’t think anyone else would want to hear about it.  Sometimes I wondered if it was all in my head, since so many of the doctors and physical therapists I’d seen didn’t seem to know what I was talking about.  I was embarrassed to tell people about it, since only my chiropractor seemed to believe it was a real problem (and you know how skeptical I am about most things alternative health).

I started My Sacroiliac Joint Saga one warm day in May.  I’d had an absolutely awful day, and was just about reaching my breaking point with this problem and thinking I might need surgery.  I didn’t really think anyone would want to read what I wrote, but I left it set to “public” just in case.

But a funny thing happened.  Once I actually gave myself permission to focus on the issue, instead of judging myself for it, I found I had a lot more time to problem solve.

I used the mental energy I’d once devoted to questioning myself instead to research the problem from every possible angle.  Not everything I read was helpful to me, but by giving my full energy to the problem, instead of wondering if I was crazy, I ended up finding the answers I needed.

And it turned out there were people out there who were familiar with this problem– patients who had experienced it themselves, and doctors and PT’s who treated patients with it, and were even contributing to research on the problem.  I just hadn’t had the luck to come across any of them.  Looking back, I think the reason why is that I stopped searching too soon.

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Last spring, I wrote a post called “Inner Limits,” about how I was coming to realize my past with an eating disorder was haunting me more than I knew.

Internally, I had set certain limits for myself on how much time or energy I was willing to spend focusing on fixing a “problem” with my body, and so I held myself back.  I did my exercises, I went to the chiropractor once or twice a week, I maybe read one or two articles a month on it, but that was it.  Other than that, my main focus was sticking to my routine, as if pretending I didn’t have a problem could somehow limit the effect it had on my life.

But really, as I wrote in the post, there was more I could do.  I could do more exercises; I could do more stretches.  I could spend an hour a day researching, if I really wanted to.  I had the time… for some reason, I just wasn’t.  Because I was afraid to devote my full attention to it.

Funny, right?  Here I’d been working on this blog about my journey with central sensitization, and how much it took me to find answers for it, and how for so long I’d felt misunderstood when I had a legitimate medical issue.   One of the main messages of Sunlight in Winter has always been “Believe in yourself.  Your pain is real and you deserve help.”

And yet here, the same patterns were playing out with my sacroiliac joints.  Deep down, despite what I’d already been through, part of me was still afraid that if I fixated too much on my body, and trying to “change” it, it would trigger the same level of obsession that drove my years of starvation and overexercising.  So I held myself back.

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I haven’t written much about my family history on this blog, and I probably won’t say more than this anytime soon.  But in the past few years, I’ve come to realize that some of these thought patterns of self-doubt didn’t start with me.  Often we learn them from somewhere– usually, consciously or not, from our families.  These patterns can be passed down, and I think they very much were in my case.  There were things that happened in my family long before I was even born, that sent out ripples across generations.

I realize now that I have been on a long road– not just with my health, but with learning to believe in myself; to trust myself.  There were events that occurred in my family, long before I existed, that have affected my life and my ability to believe in myself.

Now that I’m aware of how the past has been affecting me, I’m learning to see things differently; to create my own future and way of seeing things that’s healthy, and works for me.

I won’t always be able control what my body does (I’m sure anyone reading this blog can relate to that!).  But I can control the way I see myself, and I don’t have to let health issues affect my self-perception.  Just because a doctor can’t give me an answer for something, it doesn’t mean the problem is in my head.  It doesn’t mean my problem isn’t real.  I can’t make a problem worse by “dwelling” on it when what I’m actually doing is researching and trying to find answers.

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I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason.  I believe that, most of the time, the best thing we can do is to try to make meaning out of something for ourselves, whatever that turns out to be.

I don’t know if all my health issues happened for a reason, but now that I look back, I  know this common thread was there all along.  Compartment syndrome, central sensitization, sacroiliac joint dysfunction.

All of these problems were real; all of them were hard to get diagnosed, and hard to find the right treatment.  But for each problem (and I know I’m fortunate in this) there were eventually answers out there.

I know this is not true for everyone who writes under the “Spoonie” banner, but for me, my major health issues have all turned to be manageable.  There were answers out there, and I probably would have found them sooner if I had taken myself more seriously, and believed in the possibility of finding answers.  Or, I should say, the possibility of being understood.

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Over the past weekend, My Sacroiliac Joint Saga hit 10,000 total page views.  I still can’t believe this blog I started a year ago as a somewhat embarrassing side project has grown to this extent, and helped so many people.  (And I know this because of all your kind comments and messages– thank you!).

And, aside from page views, 2016 Me still can hardly believe how fortunate I’ve been to finally find answers to this problem.  When I was at my breaking point that day in May, getting better wasn’t something I could really even picture.

So let this be a reminder to me, and to you if you’re reading this, to never let our health issues change the way we see ourselves.

We are so much more powerful than we realize… we just have to be able to see it in ourselves.

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What I really want you to know

I never know quite what to call the posts in which I share a video.

Every title I think of sounds either click-baity or boring.  Like for this one: “Mayo Clinic doctor explains central sensitization.”  “Awesome video on central sensitization,” etc. etc.

In this day and age… what do you call something that truly is a “must-watch?”  The term is so overused.

But I really, really want everyone to watch this.

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Have you ever held something in for so long that, when someone finally validates the way you feel, you end up crying?

That was kind of how it was for me, with this.  This video was so great it actually made me cry.

I know a lot about central sensitization, but, honestly, most of that is from my own research.  (You can check out the articles and researchers I cite in my Resources section, particularly under “Scientific Articles”).

Of course, I’m grateful to have access to these articles, and of course, to the scientists who wrote them.  (Not to mention the education that allows me to understand them– big shout out to my neuroscience professor!).

But when it comes to understanding central sensitization as a scientific concept, there have been many times when I’ve felt pretty alone.

Maybe I shouldn’t feel this way, because, largely, I’ve found the answers I need– my life is so much better since I discovered pain neurophysiology education and the work of Neil Pearson (thank you again, Neil!).

But what I’m talking about is the emotional aftermath of what I went through in all the years before; all the time I spent feeling misunderstood.  All the conflicts and arguments with friends and family over the “weird” symptoms no one could understand… I have sometimes felt very, very alone in trying to articulate exactly what’s happened to me.

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That’s a big part of why this video blew me out of the water.

Here, Dr. Christopher Sletten, who runs the Pain Rehabilitation Center at the Mayo Clinic in Florida, describes, in patient-friendly language, exactly how central sensitization can happen, and the myriad ways it can affect a person.

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On my blog, I talk mainly about pain.  That’s been my main symptom, and in some ways it’s the clearest and easiest to write about.

But central sensitization can cause all sorts of bodily sensations to become amplified.

As Dr. Sletten explains, it can make lights seem brighter, and sounds seem louder.  It can make you dizzy.  It can cause digestive upset.

It can really affect all of the sensory input that is meant to help you protect your body and guide you through the world.

And this, of course, will make you look crazy to those who don’t understand.  It can even make you look crazy to yourself.

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So I love, love, LOVED the part around the 7:20 mark where Dr. Sletten asks, “So how much of this is psychological?  NONE.”  Bam.

“The emotions are a symptom, not a cause.”  YES.

How I wish the people in my life had believed this, all the times I tried to explain it to them ten years ago.

I knew I wasn’t crazy; knew it wasn’t all “in my head.”  But I could never find the right words to convey my reality; to convince people who’d already made up their minds.

It doesn’t mean they didn’t care.  But there’s a difference between knowing you’re cared about, and feeling truly believed and understood.  There’s quite a big difference, actually, and it can hurt to never get that second part from the people you love.  To know they’re tolerating your “craziness,” instead of seeing you for who you really are.

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I wasn’t really planning on writing such a personal post today.  I seriously LOVE the science behind this stuff, so I was planning to take some notes on important concepts and get more into the nitty-gritty.

But I guess this is the part of my story that I needed to tell today.  More of the nitty gritty will have to come later on.

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The one sciencey thought I wanted to leave you with right now is that this video provides some great insight into how central sensitization can lead to what are called central sensitivity syndromes.

After all, it’s not just pain.  It’s never just any one thing.  It’s the fact that the sensory information that’s supposed to give your brain cues as to how to respond to your environment is coming in way too “loud.”

This can create all sorts of different symptoms and sensations in different people.  It can lead to chronic pain; some people call it fibromyalgia.  It can cause phantom limb pain; it can cause Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS).

It can cause lead to diagnoses whose names imply more of a specific focus: chronic pelvic pain.  Temporo-mandibular joint disorder.  Irritable bowel syndrome; other digestive issues.

But they all fall under this umbrella term: central sensitivity syndromes.   Despite having seemingly very different symptoms on the surface, all of these conditions can share a common cause, at the level of the nervous system.

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So that’s all for now.  I hope you get as much out of this video as I did.  (And if you do, I hope you spread it around– I seriously want everyone in the world to watch it!).

As always, if you have any thoughts or questions for me, you can leave a comment below or email me!

 

 

Fighting a health issue without judgement, for the first time

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They say one of the worst things a blogger can do is to begin all your posts with an explanation of why it’s been so long since your last post.

Normally I’m able to stop myself from doing this, but I’m going to let myself do it this time, since it’s actually relevant to what I want to say.

The reason I haven’t been on here in so long is I had a crazy past few months dealing with the most insane dust and mold allergies.

I had been living in a super old 1700’s farmhouse that had not been well-maintained.  A good friend had been living there for years and needed a roommate, and the rent was super low.  So I moved in with him, following my return from California.

I had never really had significant allergies before, beyond suffering from pollen one or two weeks out of the year.

But this winter, it came out of nowhere.  I thought I was sick at first, and had to take antibiotics for a sinus infection, but even once that was treated, some of my symptoms never went away.

Thankfully, my primary care physician referred me to an allergist (even though I was convinced I wasn’t the kind of person who had allergies) and sure enough, I tested positive for dust and mold allergies.

By then, things had gotten so bad that I could barely sleep– I was so congested it was hard to breathe.  I’d wake up feeling like I couldn’t get enough air.  My sleep schedule got all messed up, and I started relying on things like Benadryl and Nyquil, which of course left me exhausted the next day.  And during the day, dealing with my symptoms felt like a full-time job.

In the midst of all this, I realized I had to find a new place to live– a pretty intense and financially-involved decision to make when you know you’re not in your right mind.

Somehow it worked out.  It took another month, but I finally ended up moving, and am gradually doing better (my allergy doctor said it might take a few weeks).

I’m a little upset at how much time I lost on this problem– really, I wasn’t able to be productive for much of the winter, until things finally came to a head in March.

However, if I look back, I can see that some good came out of this, in a way.

This was really the first time I experienced a health issue and pursued treatment on it without stopping to judge myself, or the way I was handling it.

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I mentioned in a previous post that, in the past few years, I came to realize that many of the same issues that contributed to my eating disorder were also affecting the way I handled my health issues.

Specifically, in an unconscious way, I was afraid to devote too much time or effort to “fixing” something with my body, because I was afraid it would trigger the same obsession that caused me to starve myself while running 40+ miles a week, until I eventually developed compartment syndrome.

With issues such as my chronic pain, and then my SI joint issues, I only tried to fix the problem to a certain extent.  I’d go see a specialist, I’d go to PT, I’d do my exercises.  But then I wanted to stop, be a normal girl, focus on other things.

I finally identified this pattern 5 years into my SI joint problem.  I realized, you know what, this problem has completely taken over my life anyway.  It doesn’t really make sense to try to “limit” the time I spend trying to fix it, because things are so limited for me right now anyway.

So I gave myself permission to do whatever it took, and started my SI joint blog as a way to keep track of the things I researched.  And it was during my research for this blog that I first came across another patient saying constant chiropractor adjustments made her worse.  That planted the seed in my mind, and I ultimately came to realize that the same was true for me as well.

With my allergy stuff… I got right to it.  I scheduled an allergy test, and when the first office of the sprawling medical practice couldn’t fit me in for over 6 weeks, I called around until I found an opening in 2 weeks.  I made all the lifestyle changes my doctor recommended, and then some.  And then I moved.

Of course, it was a little easier to proceed without judgement from others in the context of allergies.  After all, we don’t suspect people of “making up” allergies for some kind of gain. You can’t get workers comp for it, and there aren’t any super fun drugs.

But even so, I felt that the biggest difference this time around was in my mind.

I had it in my head that I was a “normal” person, experiencing a problem, and I did what it took to get better.  I didn’t waste time on “whys” or “what ifs.”  I didn’t ask if I deserved to get better, or worry about what the doctors might think of me.  I simply had a problem, and I did what it took to find a solution.

When I first started having chronic pain at nineteen, I thought I deserved it…  I’d starved and abused my body, even though I should have known better, and that the pain and the compartment syndrome and maybe even my SI joint problems were the price I had to pay.

Now, at age 32, I never felt that way about my allergies on any level… I just saw them as a crazy fluke of biology, a random stroke of unfortunate genetic luck that was completely not my fault.

So… it’s interesting to feel this way.

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Does anyone out there know what I mean?

Have you ever come to realize that your own negative beliefs and fears about yourself were affecting the way you pursued treatment?

Don’t let them.  Believe in yourself– believe that you are normal, and that answers are out there.  Because they are.

How Clifford Woolf discovered central sensitization (and why you shouldn’t blame yourself for chronic pain)

You’ve probably noticed that my blog is all about central sensitization— the process through which the central nervous system can change over time and become more sensitive to pain.

Personally, I find learning about central sensitization to be empowering.  I spent years trying to find an answer for the pain and other symptoms I felt, only to be told by various medical professionals that my problems were in my head, the possible result of depression or anxiety.

I knew, deep down, that this just wasn’t true.  It’s not that I was unwilling to believe that mental health factors could play a role.  But it just didn’t resonate. I didn’t feel anxious or depressed.  I felt like I was in pain, and wanted it to stop.

That’s why, when I first heard the phrase central sensitization and looked up what it meant, I was so struck.  Because there was a way to explain why my nervous system was acting funny, and causing me to feel things other people didn’t feel, that wasn’t based on my mental health.

So.  How do we know about central sensitization?

A neuroscientist named Clifford Woolf discovered the process of central sensitization back in the early 1980’s.  In 1983, he published a well-known and often-cited letter to the respected scientific journal Nature outlining his theory, entitled “Evidence for a central component of post-injury pain hypersensitivity.”

Although the scientific community didn’t quite accept Woolf’s ideas right away, ultimately he ended up sparking a new wave of research, and his theory of central sensitization is generally accepted today (although much more work still needs to be done).

Basically Woolf ended up discovering central sensitization more or less by accident, in the process of researching something else.

(Now, I’m not a huge fan of animal research, so I don’t love what I’m about to describe to you.  But I am grateful for the results, so for the sake of understanding, here we go).

Woolf was studying the “withdrawal reflex” that caused the rats to jerk their paws away from a painful stimulus.  He tested them over and over again, over the course of a day, and he noticed that he started to get different results at the end of the day.

After a long day of testing, the same rats were much jumpier.  It became much easier to trigger their withdrawal reflex.  They would jerk their paws away even at things that shouldn’t have been painful, or wouldn’t have caused them to react that way at the start of the day.

Woolf realized he was seeing completely different behavior in the same rats, and under the exact same conditions.  Only one thing had changed: their nervous systems had been “practicing” the withdrawal reflex all day long, and were now responding to stimuli differently.  He hypothesized that somehow, the central nervous system had changed to become more responsive to pain, after exposure to repeated stress.

Woolf’s theory was pretty revolutionary at the time. Generally speaking, the scientific community believed the central nervous system always processed pain the exact same way, like a simple machine performing the same task over and over.  Woolf’s discovery turned all of that on its head, by suggesting that actually, the central nervous system can be changed and shaped by its experiences.

His ideas were not widely accepted right away, but his work, along with that of others such as Muhammad Yunus, has now formed the basis for a wide body of research on central sensitization and chronic pain that’s going on today.

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We do still have a long way to go.  Much more research is needed, not to mention new treatments to be based on that research.

However, the reason I wanted to go into detail and describe the rat experiment for you guys is this:

If you have chronic pain/fibromyalgia, people are going to tell you it’s in your head.  Unfortunately, even sometimes people who have a passing understanding of central sensitization will imply tell you it’s in your head.  In my experience, people can understand the concept of the nervous system working differently in principle, yet still think it must somehow be related to mental health.

So this is what I want you to know: central sensitization happens in rats.

Your thoughts, beliefs, and fears about pain, and your mood– those can all play a role in your experience of central sensitization/chronic pain.

But those things don’t cause central sensitization, any more than they did in the rats in Clifford Woolf’s lab.

Remember that the next time you feel someone isn’t taking you seriously.  You can’t create your whole experience of pain by “overthinking” any more than a rat can overthink something.

In some ways, your nervous system is its own being.  There are aspects of your nervous system which have way more in common with a rat nervous system than with your conscious, human mind.  (I know, think about that!  That’s evolution for ya).

So if you have chronic pain, don’t blame yourself.  Don’t scold yourself for overthinking; don’t wonder if you’re crazy.  Your body is just doing what it was always going to do, in response to whatever stress/pain/injury you experienced.

There are ways to move forward– promising ways, which I talk about on this blog.

But to me, the first step is to stop blaming yourself.   You are okay.  You didn’t cause your own central sensitization, any more than the rats caused what Clifford Woolf observed in the lab.

The core message of pain neurophysiology education

In the traditional model of physical therapy, the physical therapist prescribes stretches and exercises for the patient in order to improve function in one part of his or her body.

For example, if you have back pain, your PT will probably give you strengthening exercises to build up the muscles in your back and your core.  If you have a knee injury, she’ll  probably give you exercises to strengthen the muscles around the knee.  This is why when most of us picture physical therapy, we imagine a patient grunting and sweating in a gym while the therapist looks on.

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Pain neurophysiology education, however, draws from a different treatment model.  This model is not based on the idea that the patient’s pain is coming an injury in one specific part of the body.  Instead, it targets the sensitized nervous system directly as a source of pain.

The best way I can try to describe this is with graphs.  The first graph below shows the way most people imagine pain to work.  It also shows what most physical therapists are imagining when they prescribe stretches and exercises to improve a patient’s function:

acute pain graph

You can see how, as the intensity of the injury diminishes (represented by the black line) the intensity of the pain diminishes as well (represented by the red line).  This matches our experience of pain in most minor situations: getting a tooth drilled, pulling out a splinter.  When the stimulus goes away, the pain goes away.

However, in situations involving chronic pain (generally defined as a painful experience that lasts for at least two to three months) the pain response works differently.  Prolonged exposure to a painful stimulus actually produces changes in how a person’s nervous system works.  It’s as if it sets off a feedback loop in which pain signals continue to be produced independently of the level of injury.  For this reason, pain persists even after the initial injury has healed:

chronic pain graph 2

This second graph is an accurate representation of the state I was in when I was first introduced to pain neurophysiology education by my physical therapist Tim.  I had a very high level of pain, but it was not correlated with a high level of injury in my body.  This is why I hadn’t seen much improvement with any of my past physical therapists– my pain was coming from my nervous system, not from a specific injury in my body.

“If pain is the patient’s primary symptom, then pain relief should be the primary goal of treatment.”

I once read something along those lines in a blog comment section, and it really stuck with me.

Most physical therapy programs are designed to improve function of a certain part of the body.  But when your pain isn’t coming from a problem with a certain part of your body, you can stretch and strengthen until the cows come home.  It still won’t change your level of pain.

This is why none of the physical therapists I had seen before had been able to help me.  They were all stuck on the idea that I needed to strengthen my back; strengthen my abs; strengthen everything.  Of course, in some ways they were right.  I wasn’t in the greatest shape.

But what Tim was able to identify is that there was a common denominator behind all of the pain I was experiencing in different parts of my body.  Rather than looking at each one as unrelated, he recognized them as the symptoms of an overactive nervous system, or, as he taught me, body alarm system.

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The goal of PNE is basically to help the patient’s body “remember” what an accurate pain response is supposed to be.  There are a few ways to accomplish this, and I will be discussing them in upcoming posts.  But the general goal of these various techniques is to help the patient’s nervous system get back in touch with with the reality of what’s happening in his or her body.

This graph shows the general goal of treatment:

input to nervous systemThe blue arrows represent the input you want to give to your nervous system.  You’re basically saying to it, “Hey.  Hey you.  You are freaking out for no reason.  This is reality, and it’s over there.”

The role of the physical therapist is basically to help the patient’s nervous system realize it doesn’t need to be on high alert all the time, and to slowly help it calm down.  The idea is that as time goes on, the discrepancy between what the person’s nervous system feels and the actual level of dysfunction in his or her body will slowly shrink.

Now, to be honest, I’m not sure you will ever be able to fully reverse the process of central sensitization.  It’s probably possible, but it hasn’t happened yet for me.  That’s why I didn’t draw the red line going all the way back down to the bottom.  An overactive pain response will always probably be somewhat of a factor for me, but it is a million times better for me now than it used to be.  I’d much rather have the red line close to zero than soaring way up high, totally out of touch with my physical reality.

P.S. I adapted this post from Part 3 of my series on my own patient experience with pain neurophysiology education, entitled “How a physical therapist helped me through my lowest point.”  I’m experimenting with different ways to present information, to find out what works best for people.  Definitely check out that series if you’d like to know more!  I would love to hear any comments or questions you might have.

Photo Credits:

  • Strength training equipment pic: colonnade
  • Balance training equipment pic: kbrookes