Piecing it together

Well, this has certainly been a strange year for me and weird medical problems (may I remind you of my one week of temporary paralysis, following a chiropractor visit back in May).

It turns out that, apparently, my last post announcing that I’d been diagnosed with mast cell activation syndrome may have been a bit premature.

For some reason, during my first visit with my new allergist at Beth Israel (one of the major medical centers in Boston), I’d gotten the impression that my diagnosis was absolute.

However, I’ve since met with her two other times, and apparently my clinical picture is not as clear-cut as it had seemed at the first visit.  (Or, perhaps I misunderstood something at that first visit when I was busy trying not to burst into tears).

Things are a bit more calm now for me, and I’m starting to piece a lot more of the facts together.

I thought I’d share them with you here.  Although I’m really upset that any of this happened, in a way I am proud of myself for the way I handled it.

As some of you know, part of what took me so long to recover from SI joint dysfunction was the fact that I didn’t believe in myself; didn’t believe that there were answers out there for me.

So when I got “I don’t know” for an answer from a doctor or a PT, I sort of internalized that as a reflection on me.   That I had a “weird” problem, one that no one else could understand.  So I’d let a lot of time go by after one thing failed, before trying something new.

I’ve learned from that experience, though, and now I am like a totally different person.

For now I will spare you the details of some of the indignities I’ve faced.  Other to say that, because some of my symptoms have been atypical and don’t necessarily fit the classic signs of an allergic emergency, people have been downright rude to me.  By this, I mean emergency room staff and even…. quite surprisingly, my new primary care doctor, who I had really liked.

But I stuck it out.  I had my regular allergist at a small local medical center near me who believed that something really was going on with me, but that it was a bit more than she had the tools to diagnose.  (That’s why she referred me to BI).

And the more I’ve met with specialists– the allergist and also two dermatologist, because a lot of my symptoms have involved strange rashes/hives/things going on with my skin– the more I’ve been affirmed.

The same spots the ER doctor told me were “nothing,” all three of the specialists confirmed to be hives.  It’s just that they can look different, on different people.

This has really just been such a brutal time.  I don’t understand why people would treat me with suspicion.  After all, it’s not like allergic reactions come with any fun drugs.  It’s not as if I’d gone in there asking for painkillers (although I would of course still be upset at being treated this way, and rightly so).

But allergies?  I don’t know.  I don’t get it.

Right now, though, I can’t control other people.  I can only control myself.

So right now I’m trying to take control of the situation as much as I can.

Part of the uncertainty, I realized, may come from the fact that there’s a disconnect between dermatology and allergy.

While I technically have “hives,” hives are not always a sign of a dangerous allergic reaction.  I’ve been learning that sometimes they can also be part of a much smaller chemical signalling pathway that has only to do with the skin.  So, while I may still have mast cell, it’s been a huge relief to know I don’t have to freak out every time I scratch an itch and end up with a hive (this is part of a non-dangerous condition called dermatographia).

So I’ll be going back this week, to dermatology and allergy.  I’m going to ask my doctors to communicate with each other about what they’ve found.

And maybe I don’t have mast cell activation syndrome.  It’s still too soon to say for sure.

But right now I am proud of myself because this time around, I’ve internalized nothing.

If those ER doctors don’t get it, well, forget them.

At least that’s the one good thing that’s come out of this, as well as my weird chiropractor paralysis episode.

A younger me would have thought there’s something wrong with me, for having problems other people don’t understand.

Now nothing slows me down.  When people dismiss me, I bounce back and fight harder.

Heat, Fibromyalgia, & Central Sensitivity Syndrome (or, why I can’t handle being hot!).

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Favorite spot: right in front of the AC :)

Hi!  So.. I try to keep the posts on my blog mostly cheerful.   I always want my blog to be a place that reflects a sense of hope and healing, where people can come to feel uplifted.

But… I also blog to share my truth with people, and to connect.

And the truth is that I have central sensitization syndrome, or fibromyalgia (still working out which term I think is best).

I’ve been concentrating so much on writing my SI joint blog recently that I haven’t been writing so much about pain science, in general.

But the past few weeks, it’s been hot.  Really hot.

And now I’m reminded, on a personal level, how central sensitization really isn’t just about pain.  Instead, it’s about everything our central nervous system is responsible for regulating… and the fact that our ability to regulate it has been thrown off.

Something that should be so small, for another person… for people with central sensitization, it can be huge.

I’m about to tell you why I’ve been so miserable, and why, so far, I’ve spent most of the weekend just lying on my bed.

As I write this, I feel like what I’m going to say sounds so silly, so benign.  But this is the reality of struggling with central sensitization– our symptoms can sound ridiculous to other people.  They can even sound ridiculous to us.  But they are still happening.

So I will tell you that my apartment is too hot.  

I should spare you the boring details, but this post won’t make sense if I don’t explain that this is my first summer in this new apartment.  I don’t have central AC in this place, as I have in summers past.  I’ve been trying to get away with one small window air conditioner for my whole place, and it’s been an epic fail.

I know what I’m saying might sound ridiculous to the average person.  Because it’s not really a big deal, right?   Just buy another air conditioner and move on.

But for me, this situation is reminding me, so strongly, that I really do have a problem with central sensitization.

Because sometimes, my body doesn’t let me just “move on.”  It’s not just like I just noticed that I felt hot.  I’ve been exhausted.

I feel like I didn’t get any warning.  I didn’t just have some mild discomfort and then think “oh, I should probably do something about the fact that my apartment is so hot.”

Instead, it hit me like a ton of bricks.  Like a virus.

Originally, I’d wanted to wait and see if one AC was enough, before buying a second.  When it first started to get hot a few weeks ago, I thought I could just spend most of my time in the bedroom (my air conditioned room) and limit my time in the rest of the place.

But no.

As the summer’s gotten hotter, I’ve found that I don’t just get hot.  I get exhausted, quickly: I can’t think clearly.  I go on anxiety spirals.

I’ve constantly felt like I’ve been coming down with something… but I haven’t actually gotten sick.

If I leave my air conditioned bedroom and walk into the 82-degree living room for 5 minutes, I get dizzy.

This is crazy, right?  I know it sounds crazy.  It doesn’t make sense!   

But that doesn’t mean I’m not also experiencing it.

I noticed that if I retreat back to my 74-degree bedroom, after about 20 minutes, I’ll start to feel calm again.  My anxiety will go away, and my thoughts will become rational again.

But apparently, I really can’t handle even the back and forth to the rest of the apartment, even if I have my cool bedroom to go back to.

I know plenty of people who live this way, no problem.

And I know a few people who barely use their air conditioners at all.

I know that what I’m experiencing sounds extreme.  And yet, it’s happening.

I think it’s a heightened version of the way everyone gets tired, when they’re overheated.  It’s how our body protects us, by forcing us to stay still and keep cool.

Only my body is perceiving the walk from my bedroom to the kitchen as a threat to homeostasis– or, in other words, its ability to keep things regulated.

Research

Honestly, I was getting pretty upset, when I remembered to do what I always do, in the end: slow down.  Take a deep breath.  And do some reading.  Remember that there is a name for what I’m experiencing, and that I always feel better when I try to learn about it.

So I went back and watched my favorite video from Dr. Sletten at the Mayo Clinic:

I shared this video in my last post too…  I guess I probably can’t share it in every post (or can I?!).  But it really pulled me out of the depths of despair right now, so of course I had to share it again.  (Thank you, Dr. Sletten!  I’ve never met you but I feel like I’m your biggest Internet fan!).

This video is really the most reassuring thing I’ve found out there.

In the first screenshot, which I took at the 2:30 mark, Dr. Sletten outlines some of the various systems our body uses to maintain homeostasis:

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He explains, “If you’re too hot, you might to go to a place to cool off.  If you’re thirsty, you might drink some water.  If you have to go the bathroom, you go to the bathroom.”  These are all ways in which we respond to the input that our peripheral nervous system gives us, in order to take care of our body.

As he says, “The signal itself is not abnormal.”

The problem sets in when these signals get upregulated– meaning a stronger and stronger signal gets sent to the brain.

The somatosensory cortex is the part of our brain that processes all of these sensations coming from our body.  When these signals are upregulated, that means they’re stronger and more uncomfortable.

In the red marker below, you can see where he wrote a list of some of the sensations and triggers that can arise when the nervous system has been sensitized.  He included temperature as a potential trigger, as well as a change in barometric pressure (which I, personally, haven’t experienced, but I would imagine this would make people feel as crazy as I feel right now).

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So, honestly.. I don’t really know how to fix this.

I’ve come a long way in managing the chronic musculoskeletal pain aspect of this, using an awesome approach called pain neurophysiology education.   But that doesn’t mean that central sensitization is completely reversible (although new treatments are being researched every day!).

For now, I personally feel better if I can just learn about it.

To know there are other people out there going through the same thing, and that there are doctors and researchers out there who won’t think I’m crazy.  To know that it’s not “in my head,” although it is in my nervous system.

I just need to know this about myself.  I have symptoms of central sensitization, and one of them is that I don’t handle heat well.   Temperature is not something I can be too flexible with.

Does anyone else out there experience this?

I know this post was not my normal cheerful, upbeat post.  I’m genuinely curious if anyone else out there goes through this.

Dr. Sletten’s video helped me a lot, but if anyone else out there feels the same way, please let me know!

And, whether or not heat is a factor for you, I hope you’re enjoying the summer!

Me… I’ll be off to buy another air conditioner now.  :)

Related:

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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Too much of a good thing: when people don’t really *get* pain science

I wanted to share a really important post with you all this morning, from the author of Chronically Undiagnosed.

She’s a therapist who is dealing with chronic illness.  Recently, she wrote about her experience attending a chronic pain support group that incorporated some of the theories of modern pain science… but did so very badly.

As someone who fervently believes in what pain science has to offer — it’s what originally inspired me to become a physical therapist– I have often felt many of her same frustrations, when people try to stretch pain science beyond the limits of its intended applications, or when they lump in their own personal beliefs about pain which have nothing to do with the actual scientific literature on the subject.

Reading her post, it sounds as though the social worker leading the class did have a basic understanding of pain science.

(By modern pain science, I mean the school of thought that says that pain is a function of our brains that’s meant to protect us, and as a protective mechanism, it doesn’t always work perfectly, or give us an accurate way to gauge what’s actually happening in our bodies. People can experience devastating injuries and feel no pain, or they can experience excruciating pain from injuries that are technically “minor.”  Pain scientists believe this knowledge can help us develop new treatment approaches, once we begin to tap into the fact that pain is here to protect us.  Some of the original proponents of this approach include David Butler and Lorimer Moseley).

It sounds as though Chronically Undiagnosed’s group leader did present some of these anecdotes, to prove that pain can be subjective.  But she did so in a way that was alienating to the group participants.

Chronically Undiagnosed writes:

“The instructors have cited reports of individuals who have either been injured and experienced no pain, or individuals who thought they were injured (but were not) and experienced extreme pain. One example was of a roofer who landed on a 6-inch nail that went through his steel toed boot who presented in the E.R with reports of excruciating pain. He was medicated for pain and the boot removed where it was discovered that the nail had gone through his shoe but between his toes, resulting in zero tissue damage. Additionally pictures of MRI’s were shown where a person had visible spine damage but no pain.

As someone with an advanced degree who has studied and taught research and statistics, I find fault with their examples. In a scientifically based research study, extreme results such as these are considered “outliers” and are not considered statistically significant. And as someone who has both counseled patients with chronic pain and experienced it daily for over 5 years, I find their assumptions to be not only scientifically incorrect but harmful to people experiencing chronic pain.

And now here come the people touting “modern pain science” as a breakthrough in treating pain. If pain is simply a perception created by the brain, then if we change our brains the pain should go away. When I expressed my concerns to the leader of the group she suggested that leading medical institutions in our country (such as Stanford, where I received “injections” that helped me) are “behind” in understanding pain.”

Reading about her experience made me really frustrated and sad, because I had a totally opposite experience when first presented with this information.

However, when I first came across it (under the guidance of my physical therapist Tim, and through watching physiotherapist Neil Pearson‘s lectures) I understood these stories– which ARE statistical outliers– to simply be examples illustrating how pain works.

They are extreme examples, but they demonstrate the fact that pain does not always provide an accurate indication of what is wrong in our bodies.  These stories are meant to educate, not to give people the impression that they ought to be able to magically “turn off” the pain in their brains tomorrow.

Following this, it sounds as though the social worker leading the group made another key mistake, one that I absolutely can’t stand:

She lumped her own personal beliefs about pain in with the theories of modern pain science, without making any distinction in between the two.

I’ve personally seen this before.  The first doctor who ever told me I had a heightened sensitivity to pain never actually told me about any of the neuroscience research behind this phenomenon (central sensitization).  Instead, she told me I was probably suffering from some form of psychological trauma, and that the only way for me to get better was through psychotherapy.

Years later, when I had finally discovered pain neurophysiology education, I found that the people actually researching modern pain science never talked about childhood trauma (or any other kind of psychological trauma).  They didn’t need to– the theory of pain as an imperfect protective mechanism was enough to explain so many of the things that could sometimes go wrong with it.

That’s not to say that no one, ever, experiences physical pain as a result of emotional trauma.  That’s not what I’m trying to say either.  But it’s wrong to be leading a group where you’re presenting people with the theories of modern pain science, and lump in your own personal beliefs about pain without making a distinction.

She did actually lump in other grains of truth.

Some of the other information Chronically Undiagnosed’s social worker presented is, technically, legitimate.

It is true that MRI’s are not always the best predictors of who will actually experience back pain.  There’s a great book, Back Sense, that talks about this.

In a nutshell, if you were to take 100 people off the street and take an MRI of everyone’s spine, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell, just by looking at the MRI’s, who was actually experiencing back pain.

We all experience some degeneration to our spines over time, but sometimes this degeneration can be symptom-less.

However, this information should never be used to tell a group of chronic pain patients they shouldn’t be experiencing any pain!

All of these bits of knowledge, which can be helpful– whether it’s pain science, or Back Sense– are meant to be one piece of the puzzle!

And they are meant to help illuminate aspects of patients’ experience.  They are meant to educate.  

They are not meant to blame people, or make them feel responsible for experiencing pain they shouldn’t be feeling!

I see this far too often in the field of pain science.

As a (hopeful) future physical therapist, I’ve followed a number of physical therapists, writers, and researchers on various social media platforms, hoping to learn more about how the field of pain science is evolving.

Unfortunately, I’ve had to go back and actually “unfollow” a bunch of people, because I see the same thing over and over again.  People will get annoyed and actually downright snarky about patients and fellow medical professionals trying to treat certain conditions which are the subject of controversy– the sort of “gray areas.”

One of these areas, in particular, is the sacroiliac joint.  There are a lot of physical therapists out there who don’t believe sacroiliac joint dysfunction is a real thing.

So I’ll sign on to Twitter, and find that someone I respected and followed to learn more about pain science is tweeting out some kind of derogatory commentary about how “the sacroiliac joint doesn’t really move” and what a “sham” it is that people are trying to treat it.

I suppose the evidence for sacroiliac joint dysfunction is really a topic for another post, however to me it’s just another example of people trying to take pain science too far.

Ultimately, I believe these physical therapists’ anger stems from a good place.  From their perspective, they’re probably tired of seeing other medical professionals “waste” patients’ time by treating them for musculoskeletal causes of pain, when they should be focusing on the nervous system.

But really, there are two sides of the same coin.

Yes, pain originates in our brains.  And our brains can shut pain off, in emergency situations.  

But that doesn’t mean patients’ pain isn’t valid.  That doesn’t mean that, once you put them in a 3-hour class where they hear about extreme examples of people not experiencing pain, they should automatically be able to “turn off” their own pain.

No approach will work if you don’t listen to people.  No approach will work if you aren’t kind.  That’s really the bottom line.

Pain science should be used to educate– not to deny the other potential reasons someone could be experiencing pain.

Just as MRI’s aren’t always accurate indicators of who will have back pain, it doesn’t mean that someone in excruciating pain shouldn’t have an MRI.

All of these things represent aspects of the truth, but no one piece should ever be a substitute for looking at the whole picture.

P.S. Please don’t worry, there are plenty of ways to learn about pain science from people who actually do get it!  

For more, you can check out my Resources section.

I also highly recommend Todd Hargrove’s article Seven Things You Should Know About Pain Science.

 

How I developed central sensitization: Part 5

For a few years, I was stuck: caught between all of the doctors I saw, who thought there was something wrong with me psychologically, and the fact that deep inside of me was a calm, inner voice that knew it just wasn’t true.

***

Feeling as though I’d run out of other options, I became really interested in alternative medicine.

I still wanted an explanation for my pain that had something to do with my physical body.

I wanted to be seen; I wanted to be heard: I wanted to be believed.  And the alternative medicine practitioners I saw were able to provide me with that validation.  They believed me– of course the traditional doctors hadn’t been able to solve my problem.

***

For a while, I went a little bit off the deep end.  I read just about every book I could find on energy healing.  I started taking turmeric capsules instead of Advil; I bought crystals.

I began to see traditional medicine as somewhat of a sham, propped up by the pharmaceutical companies.  And I thought anything that fell under the heading of “alternative” medicine had to be good.

***

I had a lot of reasons to reject the “establishment” view.  The establishment, after all, is what failed me.  I’d slipped through the cracks, so many times; the safety nets I’d counted on had turned out to have holes in them.  Of course, it made sense that what was “traditional” had failed me again.

***

Now, I don’t want to offend anyone by insulting or dismissing an approach that has been helpful for them.  But if I were to give you the complete list of everything I tried, well, just about every “alternative” treatment is on it.

However, the truth is that nothing I tried worked, and all of it cost me a lot of time and money.

Looking back, there were definitely times when I must have been “that crazy person,” insisting to people that they try this same new treatment I was doing, or that they consider the fact that their headaches or thyroid problem could be entirely caused by blocked energy flow in the body.

My views have changed a lot since then– the science classes I’ve taken have opened my eyes to just how much we really do know, using “regular” science.

But I still have a lot of empathy for the “crazy” people, because I was one.  I know how easy it is to believe a convincing claim from a caring person who probably genuinely thinks they’re going to to help you.  Especially if you don’t have much of a scientific background.

I used to believe some crazy shit I’d be really embarrassed to admit to you now.

That’s why, even though my perspective has changed, I don’t believe in shaming people, or embarrassing them, for trying to do something to heal themselves.  Everyone is on their own path… and some of our paths can get a bit convoluted.

***

I’m not trying to say that alternative medicine doesn’t help anyone.  I believe there are some treatments that are probably more legitimate than others (for example, acupuncture has been shown to have some pretty significant effects for pain relief, although evidence suggests it may be more due to the body releasing endorphins in response to a needle than anything else).

But at the end of the day, I was struggling from the effects of central sensitization, which none of these belief/treatment systems had any means of addressing.  There’s no way any of these treatments were going to help me, because even my original “diagnosis” was always wrong.

I felt better, emotionally, when I was given an explanation that had to do with my physical body… but ultimately, all of the treatments fell short.

After all, there was no way any school of thought was going to help me, if it didn’t even have a name for my problem.

To be continued in Part 6!

To read this series from the beginning: