Grateful to be okay

Well, if there’s anything I can say I learned last week week (in addition to chiropractors are dangerous), it’s this:

How very, very grateful I am not to have a permanent nerve injury.

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I guess that’s sort of the obvious thing for anyone to say in this situation.  But what really surprised me was that my biggest fear was not how difficult daily life was going to be if my nerve issues turned out to be permanent.

Instead, what scared me the most was that I might have to give up my chosen career– or, at least, not be able to do it in the way that I want.

It was sort of a reminder for me, in a way, of how much I really want to become a physical therapist.  Because in my daily life, I often get bogged down in the practicalities.  The few remaining prerequisites I would need to take in order to apply to certain programs.  Taking the GRE (again, that is– let’s not talk about how I scored the first time!).

Last Friday, I consulted a neurologist, and was very encouraged by what she said.  On the way home, I stopped in the town of Newburyport, Mass., which is always one of my favorite places to go in the summer.

I could feel my body telling me it was okay to move, that it was okay to start using my legs again.  So I walked around and took in the sunset, gathering my thoughts.

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And I was just sort of thinking of everything I’ve been working on so far– my classes, my blog, my Youtube channel (I have so many ideas for videos I mean to make!).

And of course, the e-book I’ve been working on– Exercises for the Sacroiliac Joint.  It will be quite a bit easier to get back into concentrating on that, now that the question of whether I’ll be partially paralyzed for the rest of my life has been taken off the table.

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As I have said before, I don’t necessarily think everything happens for a reason.  But as my friend Nicole told me once, “You can make meaning out of things for yourself.”

So there a few lessons I can draw from what happened:

1) I need to explore alternatives to chiropractic adjustments.  Who knows where this will take me?  Maybe I’ll discover something even better, something that will benefit my future patients and make me a better PT.

2) I have such a better understanding now of what it feels like to have nerve damage.  Before, it was something I only could imagine.  Now I have felt it– thankfully, only for about a week.

And 3) What a reminder of how much I really do want to do this.  I want to teach people, I want to educate (and thank God I’ll still be able to use my own body as a tool to do so with).

Sometimes I feel myself get slowed down by the demands of daily life, and the things I have to do just to get into school.   So in a way, it was quite the wake-up call to get in touch with the fear I had, at the thought it could be taken away.

So now, I am grateful to be okay, and it is back to business.

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Let’s give this a whirl: explaining a scientific article in plain English

Tonight, I’m going to try out a type of post I’ve been wanting to write for a while: taking a scientific journal article on central sensitization, and translating it into plain English for my readers.

I got the idea from Paul Ingraham of PainScience.com.  He has a fantastic “jargon-to-English” article on central sensitization on his site (a translation of a paper by renowned pain researcher Clifford Woolf), which I really love.

There is no reason why you, as a patient and chronic pain sufferer, should not be able to know a little bit about the scientific research being done on your condition.  You are going to need to be able to advocate for yourself, stand up for yourself, and remember there is a legitimate explanation for your pain, even if other people don’t always see it that way.  Knowing there is research to back you up helps.

Ever since I first learned of the term “central sensitization” back in 2011, I found so much comfort in reading these articles.  Even if I didn’t understand every word, just knowing there were people out there who would believe me about my pain, if I met them, provided me with the sense that I wasn’t alone.

These changes to our nervous systems are real, even if some of the people in our lives don’t always understand.

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So anyway.  The article that I want to take a stab at tonight is “Central Sensitization: A Generator of Pain Hypersensitivity by Central Neural Plasticity” by Alban Latremoliere and Clifford J. Woolf.  (In the interest of keeping things manageable, I am just going to outline the abstract, which is basically a summary of the article).

The article discusses central sensitization, which is the name of the process through which our nervous systems learn to become more sensitive to pain.

Let’s look at it in bits and pieces:

“Central sensitization represents an enhancement in the function of neurons and circuits in nociceptive pathways caused by increases in membrane excitability and synaptic efficacy as well as to reduced inhibition…”

This basically means that the parts of the nervous system responsible for sending pain signals become more active than they were before.

“Increases in membrane excitability” means that it will take less stimulation for nerves to send a pain signal.

An increase in “synaptic efficacy” means that the nerve is going to learn to be more efficient with the neurotransmitters that it has.  So, even though the nervous system still has the same chemicals floating around in it, it is going to learn to start sending stronger and stronger pain signals with those same chemicals.

Reduced inhibition.   Your body has many intricate systems of checks and balances within it.  It is how our bodies maintain control over our internal environment.

One way our body maintains control is by “inhibiting” some of the signals our nervous system sends.  This serves a really practical purpose– we do not need to be bombarded with reminders that our socks are a little bit itchy at all times.  Your nervous system chooses to block out certain signals when they are not useful, or in emergency situations (which is why people can feel no pain when they are in shock).

But in the case of central sensitization, our body’s ability to “block out” or “turn the volume down” on pain signals is reduced, meaning we ultimately experience more pain.

“Central sensitization is responsible for many of the temporal, spatial, and threshold changes in pain sensibility…”.

There are several ways in which these changes to our nervous systems manifest themselves.

We may find that, when something happens that we find painful, we end up experiencing it as painful in a larger part of our body than we might have otherwise.

I’ve really found this to be true with back pain.  When my back pain was at its absolute worst (before I discovered pain neurophysiology education) one tight muscle or muscle knot could make my entire back hurt.

“Because central sensitization results from changes in the properties of neurons in the central nervous system, the pain is no longer coupled, as acute nociceptive pain is, to the presence, intensity, or duration of noxious peripheral stimuli.”

This means that, in a sensitized nervous system, pain is no longer an accurate measure of the presence of an injury, or the degree to which our tissues may have been damaged by an injury.  The central nervous system is now doing its own thing, and you can’t really go by the pain to know what’s wrong.

“Instead, central sensitization produces pain hypersensitivity by changing the sensory response elicited by normal inputs, including those that usually evoke innocuous sensations.”

This means that we now start to feel pain in response to things that are not harmful, and which would have felt painful to us before.

To give you an example, I once knew someone who also suffered from chronic pain, and she said there were days she simply could not bear the feeling of clothing against her skin.  Just the feeling of a lightweight sweater against the skin of her chest made it burn and throb.

This person wasn’t crazy.  She knew her clothes weren’t “hurting” her.  But her nervous system was reacting as though those clothes were somehow damaging her skin.  There was a disconnect between her rational mind, which knew it was only clothing, and the parts of her nervous system which were contributing to her pain hypersensitivity.

(So… lest I end the post on a gloomy note, not to worry.  That’s where pain neurophysiology education comes in, to try to fix this disconnect).

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Phew.  Okay.  That was not quite as easy as I thought it would be, all the times I thought about writing this post.  But hopefully you made it through!

Everything I write on this subject is meant to be a trial, of sorts.  I’m experimenting with what types of stories and explanations make the most sense, because I really have it in my heart of hearts to develop a set of educational materials on these nervous system changes.

So I want to see what works– what makes sense, what resonates.  (And what doesn’t).

I suffered for so long, thinking I was crazy, when the whole time there were answers out there.  And there was no good reason for it, except that most people (including many medical professionals) still do not know anything about central sensitization.

So I, and my blog, and my future potential physical therapy practice, are hopefully going to be doing something about that.

Please let me know if you have any questions, or any feedback on what sorts of things would be helpful in the future!  I do take requests!

The best TED talk ever: Elliot Krane on the Mystery of Chronic pain

Tonight I’m throwing it back to this amazing 2011 lecture on chronic pain given by Dr. Elliot Krane of Stanford University.

I found his talk around the time I was first starting this blog, back in 2012, and it really inspired me to try to tell my own story with complex pain problems.

Dr. Krane is a pediatrician and an anesthesiologist.  He specializes in treating children with chronic pain disorders at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University.

In this talk, Dr. Krane outlines the case of a young girl who developed CRPS following a wrist sprain, and was successfully treated at his hospital.

He has some really great quotes and soundbites about chronic pain– things I want to remember, and things I think will be useful in trying to explain the multi-layered nature of pain to people who don’t quite get it (yet).

So here, I’m just going to take a few notes so I (and you, if you’re interested) can come back and remember some key points really quickly:

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Most of the time, we think of pain as a symptom of a disease– the result of an infection or a tumor, an inflammation or an operation.  But about 10% of the time, after a patient recovers from one of those events, the pain persists for months or even years.  In those cases, pain can become its own disease.

Chronic pain is “a positive feedback loop…. It’s almost as if somebody came into your home and rewired yours walls so that the next time you turned on the light switch, the toilet flushed three doors down, or your dishwasher went on, or your computer monitor turned off.  It sounds crazy, but that’s what happens with chronic pain.”

Glial cells (a particular type of cell found in the nervous system) were once thought to be unimportant.  When I learned about them in my PT prerequisite classes, we thought of them as the supportive “glue” that provides a safe environment for neurons, the more interesting cells that were actually responsible for sending messages.

But, Dr. Krane explains, it turns out that glial cells can play a vital role in the “modulation, amplification and, in the case of pain, the distortion of sensory experiences.”  Once glial cells are triggered by chronic pain, they become overactive and help initiate that the positive feedback loop he mentioned.

Some other quotes:

“The nervous system has plasticity.  It changes, and it morphs in response to stimuli.”

On treatment:

“We treat these patients in a rather crude fashion at this point in time. ”

Dr. Krane describes the treatment protocol for CRPS patients at his center:

  • symptom modifying drugs (painkillers) “which are frankly, not very effective for this type of pain”
  • “We take nerves that are noisy and active that should be quiet, and we put them to sleep with local anesthetics.”
  • “Most importantly… we use a rigorous and often uncomfortable process of physical therapy and occupational therapy to retrain the nervous system to respond normally to the activities and sensory experiences that are part of everyday life.

The future is actually even brighter:

“…the future holds the promise that new drugs will be developed that are not symptom-modifying drugs that simply mask the problem, as we have now, but that will be disease-modifying drugs, that will actually go right to the root of the problem and attack those glial cells….that spill over and cause this central nervous system wind-up…”

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It’s really interesting for me to look back on this talk, now, and see how my perspective has changed since I first watched it in 2011.  Back then, the point about glial cells largely went over my head (probably because I wasn’t invested at all in knowing what they were).

Now that I’ve taken anatomy & physiology as well as an undergraduate neuroscience course, I can actually see how groundbreaking this really is, to identify glial cells as a potential source of the problem.

It’s as though you’re looking at a telephone pole, and you realize that the wooden pole itself was sending signals, instead of just being there to hold up the electrical wires.  (If that metaphor makes sense).

Anyway, I really hope Dr. Krane is right, that we can begin to develop drugs that will target this mechanism for chronic pain.

Hope you enjoyed this talk!

The road to physical therapy school

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It occurred to me recently that I really haven’t talked much about my progress towards becoming a physical therapist on this blog.

So, if you’re curious, here’s my deal:

I have a Bachelor’s degree in the humanities.  My concentration was social theory, with an emphasis on gender studies.

My goals, when I was in college, were focused in a pretty different direction than the path I’m on now: I wanted to study social policy, and travel abroad working for various non-profits and human rights agencies.  I also wanted to become a psychotherapist.

I started down that road immediately out of college, working at a mental health agency so that I could gain experience before grad school.

Before this, I’d already had a lot of struggles with chronic pain, and had to have surgery for compartment syndrome.  Yet after college, I’d managed to reach some kind of holding pattern where pain didn’t cause me to miss work.  That was, until the awful winter of 2010, when a few things happened in a brief span of time that caused my pain levels to flare way up.

That was my breaking point– when I tried, anew, to get answers.  Finally, after months of searching, I found my physical therapist Tim, who had studied pain neurophysiology education with Neil Pearson.

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Ultimately, I was so inspired by everything I learned from Tim that it led me to consider becoming a physical therapist.

I’d always found physical therapy to be a fascinating field.  As a high school runner, I’d had a few serious injuries where I really needed PT to get up and moving again.   I had formed some great relationships with my therapists, and hung on every word they said.  A part of me was always a little bit sad when they told me I was doing well enough that I didn’t need to come back.  I would have gladly come back back every day, just to hang out and learn.

When I was a freshman in high school, I partially tore my hip flexor during a cross-country race and was on crutches for months.  It was a physical therapist who helped me overcome my fear and eventually start running again.

Then, when I was 19 and had surgery for compartment syndrome, it was a physical therapist who got me back up and moving again.  While I’ll always be grateful to the surgeon who fixed my legs, my PT was the one who gave me the confidence to actually start using them again.

And now, when my life had ground to a complete halt at age 25 because of constant, debilitating pain, it was a physical therapist who gave me my life back again.

I’d always had so much appreciation for PT’s.  Now, the idea dawned on me: why don’t I try to become one?

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Growing up, I didn’t really consider myself that much of a science person.  Looking back, I think a lot of that has to do with the environment at my school, and how our science classes were taught.

Once I started looking into becoming a PT– taking classes, shadowing practicing PT’s– I realized I always had been interested in health science, and exercise physiology, and human anatomy.  It had just taken a different form.

I’d always wanted to do the best thing for my body.  I loved when my running coaches talked about strengthening, building endurance, the benefits of stretching.

And I’d always been interested in nutrition, and being healthy overall.

It’s just that when I was younger, I didn’t have the healthiest mindset, and took some of these interests too far.  But my eating disorder was not all of me– it was a snapshot of a specific place I was in, at a certain point in time, at a certain age.  Although I had some distorted beliefs, that does not mean I wasn’t also genuinely interested in health and fitness at the same time.

The difference is that now, I am able to come at it in a much healthier, stable, and more grounded manner, and know that I will be able to help others with similar struggles.

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Five years later, I can say that I ended up loving all of my prerequisite classes, and I’m so glad I made the decision to take them.

It’s been an incredibly long road.  You see, some of the classes I needed to take had prerequisites of their own.  At the same time, due to my SI joint issues, there were periods of time where I found it incredibly difficult to walk, drive, or even stand up for more than a few minutes.

Despite of all of this, I’m finally at the point now where I’ve basically taken all of the classes I need in order to apply to PT school.  (I might need to take one or two more, depending on specific programs I might try to get into, but most of my bases are covered).

And honestly, I’m so glad I made this decision.  I realized that, while the humanities will always be my first love, I am also a science person, and have been all along.   I couldn’t see it at the time, but I know it now.

Nervous System Basics

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As I’ve said time and time again, I really feel that people living with chronic pain/fibromyalgia can benefit immensely from learning about how the body works. Even the feeling that you are just beginning to understand the complex processes making up your experience of pain can help give you a sense of control over things.

And reading about the new research that is being done on pain, even if you don’t completely understand every word, can sometimes give you a reason to remain hopeful at times when you’re feeling stuck.

With that in mind, I’m going to back way up and publish a post I’ve been meaning to write for a very long time.  Here I’ll outline a few key terms and concepts about how the nervous system works. Hopefully it will be helpful to anyone who is interested in learning more about pain.

So let’s get started.

The nervous system can be divided into two main branches.

Photo courtesy of the Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Web site. http://cnx.org/content/col11496/1.6/, Jun 19, 2013.
Photo courtesy of the Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Web site. http://cnx.org/content/col11496/1.6/, Jun 19, 2013.

The central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord, and is shown in pink in the diagram above.

The peripheral nervous system consists of all the nerves in the body, and is shown in yellow.

The brain is the command center for your body, and it is where your experience of pain is processed. It is where you think consciously, but it also controls many unconscious functions, such as breathing, your sense of balance, and the ability to orient your body in space.

The spinal cord is the relay system for messages between the brain and the peripheral nerves. (It can also play a role in affecting how strong your ultimate experience of pain is, but we’ll talk more about that later).

The peripheral nerves have two main jobs:

Sensory: Sensory nerves send signals to the central nervous system about what you are feeling physically. When you stub your toe or get a papercut, it’s sensory nerves that send that signal up your spinal cord to your brain.

Motor: This is (to me) a kind of funny scientific word. It really just means “movement.” The motor nerves of the peripheral nervous system are what tell your muscles to move, as well as tell your organs to perform specific functions.

Pain

When people talk about how pain works, they are generally talking about the relationship between the sensory nerves, the spinal cord, and the brain. The sensory nerves send signals up to the brain about any damage that may have occurred, and the brain decides how to interpret those signals.

But Pain is a Two-Way Street

Historically, people considered this pain pathway to be a very consistent, cut-and-dry system that always worked the same way every time. If a person was in a lot of pain, they had to have a lot of physical damage/injury. If they weren’t in very much pain, they must not have a very serious physical problem.

However, scientific advances in the past few decades have shown that pain is actually much more complicated than that. It turns out that the severity of a person’s pain does not always reflect accurately the amount of physical injury they have experienced.

You can have soldiers in battle who do not even realize they’ve been shot– their peripheral nerves are sending very strong messages of “damage” up to their brains, but their brains tune those signals out because they need to focus on survival.

Conversely, you can have people with chronic pain, who– due to a number of potential factors—can experience excruciating pain in response to a very minor injury, or in fact no injury at all.

Central Sensitization

At the risk of boring my long-time readers, let me define one of my most favorite terms again.  Central sensitization is the process responsible for this last phenomenon, where people can develop an increased sensitivity to pain.

The term refers to a series of changes that can take place in the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord) which can ultimately make a person much more sensitive to pain.  In some cases, central sensitization can become a self-perpetuating phenomenon, in which a person continues to feel pain long after their initial injury has healed.

Central sensitization is such a fascinating topic.  There is still much research to be done on it, but so far it is believed to play a role in such seemingly-diverse conditions as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, temporomandibular disorder, and many others.

One Last Thing

When I first started trying to understand the amazing, interesting new research that’s being done in pain, I kept hitting this one term that mystified me.  The dorsal horn.  What the heck is a dorsal horn?  I was so confused by this for a long time, and it really held me back from understanding a lot of articles.

Turns out, the term dorsal horn refers to an area in the back of the spinal cord.  The back of the spinal cord is where the sensory nerves meet with the spinal cord, so their messages can continue on up to the brain.  It’s pretty simple actually– the sensory nerves connect with the back of the spinal cord, and motor nerves connect in the front.  So when people talk about the dorsal horn, they are  talking about where sensory information is entering the spinal cord and then being relayed on up to the brain.

For more info

If you want a really great overview of the divisions of the nervous system, I highly recommend this video.

Conclusion

I really hope you’ve enjoyed this post!  As you can see, it’s written in a very different tone, and for a very different target audience, than my previous post.  I’m still in the process of figuring out what type of post works best on this blog.  I really want to be able to write about advanced scientific concepts for every day people, and I’ll probably be trying to figure out the best way to do that for a while. Your thoughts/comments/suggestions are always welcome, so please let me know if you have any! Thanks!

Part Two: click here if you’d like to keep reading!

Top photo courtesy of Geralt