My Fibromyalgia Story: Learning How to Manage One Day at a Time

my story

Part I: From Onset to Diagnosis

For Fibromyalgia Awarenss Month, I wanted to share my illness journey here on the the blog. My story starts eight years ago. It wasn’t a climactic beginning. It was just achey low back pain that got worse the longer I sat writing my M.A. thesis. It seemed like a common enough problem to have, except for the fact that I was 23. The nurse told me to take ibuprophen 24/7 and stretch. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work. About a year later, my body gradually began to fall apart, limb by limb. My back pain worsened. My knee gave out. My shoulders become too painful to allow me to type. This is what the doctors call “gradual onset”.

I thought I was losing my mind.

My doctor at the time told me all she could do was suggest Robaxacet. At this point I was starting my PhD. The physical demands of reading and writing 24/7 began to take their toll, exacerbating my pain. Daily functioning on my own became increasingly difficult. My fiancé (now husband), who was living 4 hours away,  had to come every weekend to help me with the chores (groceries, cleaning, etc.) that I could no longer do.  In retrospect, I think the stress of the program and my fear about not being able to meet expectations, as well as not being able to understand what was happening to me, pushed my body past the point of no return. After that I developed more of the classic fibromyalgia symptoms, like insomnia, fatigue and digestive problems.

I was fortunate to have been referred previously to a pain clinic for pelvic pain. This meant I was able to see a pain specialist for my musculoskeletal pain within the same year all my fibro symptoms exploded. In March 2012 he diagnosed me with fibromyalgia.

Part II: Change, Anxiety and Trying to Cope

I was so relieved after my diagnosis that my symptoms had been validated – and given better medication than NSAIDs. I was given tramadol, which reduced my pain, and doxepin, which helped me to sleep. But I still hadn’t absorbed yet what this diagnosis would mean for my future. After my diagnosis, it became obvious that even with treatment, no amount of accommodations would allow me to continue my PhD. I had tried everything I could think of so I could stay – withdrawn from my TA position, put in place disability accommodations to allow me to submit work late, bought expensive adaptive devices and installed voice recognition software.

Feeling like my life was spinning out of control, I started having panic attacks on campus. When the spring term ended, I went back home to move in with my fiancé, and decided to withdraw from the PhD program.

With huge relief, I  went on medical leave from my studies. However, I was immediately confronted by the problem that my days were empty of activity or responsibility. I remember dragging myself out to a local cafe in the afternoons while my fiancé was at work. I wanted the anonymity of a public place, where I could feel ‘normal’ for awhile. It was the only cafe I could go to because the chairs were sensible rather than funky.  Still, I had to bring my back-rest with me, which generated stares from other patrons.  I would cover it with my coat in order to try to hide it from attention. I could no longer type or hold a book due to pain, so I was embarrassed to be sitting at a table without a laptop or reading material, like everyone else. I listened to audiobooks or free online course video lectures instead. I would set up my tablet so that it looked like I was working, rather than listening and staring around. I envied all the other people my age, surrounded by papers, purposely tapping away on their computers. The goals that I had been pursuing were on pause, indefinitely. I grieved for my old life. I pushed myself to go to the cafe, even on days I experience brain-fog or fatigue, because staying home felt like giving up. I spent that year in a state of shock. I was always someone whose identity was wrapped up in my work. I didn’t know who I was anymore.

Part III: Learning Self-Care Skills to Manage my Fibro

Gradually I started trying to put the pieces back together. When I got diagnosed with my chronic condition all the information about exercise seemed so out of touch with the reality of my life. At the time, I had trouble bending forward, which meant I needed help with basic tasks like shaving my legs. I had trouble getting up or down from sitting on the floor. I rarely took the stairs and had trouble walking or standing for longer than ten minutes. Since I was already tired, sore and busy then I wasn’t going to be able to go to the gym. I couldn’t afford a personal trainer. With my back pain there was no way I could participate in the group yoga classes I used to take in university. Even more frustrating was the fact that all the research I came across proved how beneficial exercise is to health. I knew that I should exercise but I felt like I couldn’t.

I found two at-home instructional DVDs in yoga/pilates and tai chi that I was actually able to do, which helped me to improve my physical functioning. I started seeing a physiotherapist who put together a thorough stretching routine for me to do daily. Without doubt, this is the single most effective thing I tried to improve my health and well-being. My pain decreased and my quality of life increased.

I was fortunate to be referred to a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy program by my pain clinic. I found participating in the course very valuable for learning tools to  manage the negative thoughts and feelings that accompanied my fibromyalgia. One of the core parts of the program was learning to identify negative thinking traps, or ‘cognitive distortions’.  These are thoughts that “sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.” I learned that I tend to think in “all or nothing” terms – a cognitive distortion. I would say to myself things like “if I can no longer pursue my career, I am a failure in life”. In CBT, I learned to challenge these distortions with the reality of each situation. For example, in response to the statement above, I challenged it by saying “While being in pain means I have to do less, that does not reflect on my personal worth, nor does it mean what I can do is meaningless”.

I was also referred for a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course by the pain clinic. In this course, I learned to be more mindful of the present moment. I learned that worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, only makes me suffer more in the present.  It’s better for my quality of life if I return my focus to the next best thing I can do for myself in this moment. Critically, the MBSR course reminded me that, even with pain and flare-ups, there are small moments of enjoyment, if I only stop and notice them – the taste of a good meal, sharing a hug, a sunny day, or a favourite hobby. One of the key lessons I learned through mindfulness is that my thoughts, feelings and sensations, no matter how difficult, are changeable, like the weather. When I hold on to the fact that even my darkest moods will eventually lift, I feel calmer and more in control.

Part IV: Coping with Relapse

In 2014 I started a part time distance program for social work and completed the first year. But it wasn’t to be. I got a cold over the 2015 holidays and suffered the worst fatigue and brain fog I’d ever known. At the time I was just starting to look for a social work practicum placement. There was no way I could commit to working 15 hours a week out of my home. For the second time I had to withdraw from school.

I felt completely overwhelmed at the outset of my fatigue relapse last year.  First, there was the emotional reaction to a new situation: anxiety about whether it was here to stay, frustration that life was about to get more difficult, and grief at the prospect of losing what abilities I still had.  Secondly, there was the practical challenge of figuring out how I would cope, like what new treatment options to try or how to manage my daily routines and responsibilities.  Lastly, I faced the impact of a relapse on my relationships, such as the increased caregiver burden on my partner, and feeling less able to be present with family and friends.

My relapse brought me back to the beginning of my illness journey and how I coped after my diagnosis. I was able to use many of the lessons that had been learned the hard way the first time around. In essence, what I have learned is that I have the power of choice over what I focus my attention on each day. Through challenging negative patterns of thinking, being present, taking in the good, and pursuing an enjoyable hobby, I try to emphasize what enriches my life and let go of what doesn’t. Of course there are always bad days and I don’t believe any amount of positive thinking frees us from ever experiencing difficult times. I personally have found, however, that changing my worldview has dramatically lessened the amount of suffering I go through during relapses and has improved my quality of life. I spent that winter using the time to learn new things. I taught myself calligraphy, I read, and I wrote more often on my blog.

Part V: Moving Forward, Maintaining Balance

That spring, my energy began to slowly improve. I found a kind of peace in accepting that whatever I do next, it needs to allow me to work with my body and not against it. I think that’s why blogging and writing has ‘clicked’ more for me now than when I first started. I have found that grieving for your old life and finding acceptance in your new life is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done kind of thing.

Being at home allows me to respond to each day as it is. I’m fortunate to be able to stay at home. I sleep in late because without ten hours I am a brain-fogged zombie. I can’t type because of shoulder pain but I can use speech recognition software. I stretch, do gentle exercise, walk, and make sure I move around during the day. I balance my activities with self-care, which is how I am able live more fully, even with fibromyalgia.

In the summer of 2015 I felt well enough to finally plan my (fibro-friendly) wedding. On a beautiful August day I married the man I’d fallen madly in love with eight years earlier and who has been my saving grace through this whole journey.  He didn’t blink when it came to assuming care-giving responsibilities – he does the housework, the laundry and the dishes on top of his full time job. He is always understanding when we have to change plans or just stay at home. Most of all he is so supportive. He celebrates the small accomplishments of my life without ever making me feel ‘less than’.

I’m grateful for how I’ve grown through encountering all of the challenges that come with chronic illness. Learning mindfulness meditation and focusing on the present has given me a more helpful perspective. I’m a happier person when I remember to ‘stop and smell the roses’. I feel like I’ve become more patient, more adaptable, more assertive and more accepting than I was before fibromyalgia.  I’m proud of making it through every day, especially on the tough days where no amount of self-care stops your symptoms, and you just have to hold on to the knowledge that it will pass. Everyone living with chronic illness should be proud of the strength they have developed to manage daily life.

My new motto is something I read shortly after my diagnosis –  “It’s not the life you imagined, but it’s a good life nonetheless.” It’s something I hope for myself and everyone who lives with fibromyalgia.

National-Fibromyalgia-Awareness-Day-May-12

A Tale of Two Types of Laparoscopic Surgery to Treat Endometriosis

A TALE OF TWO TYPES OF LAPAROSCOPIC SURGERY TO TREAT ENDOMETRIOSIS

 Learn about the most effective type of laparoscopy for endometriosis.

Last summer I had an appointment with my OB-GYN to figure out the next step for treating my internal pelvic pain, which she suspected was caused by endometriosis.  The pain had significantly ramped up in recent months and was virtually constant.  My OB-GYN recommended having a laparoscopy, which she described as a minimally invasive surgery to diagnose and removed endometriosis lesions that might be present in my pelvis.  I left that appointment believing that there was only one type of laparoscopic surgery to treat endometriosis.

I was wrong.

The procedure I finally had this past winter (after months of waiting), with a type of laparoscopy called ablation or coagulation. During this procedure, endometrial lesions are burned away with a high energy heat source, usually a laser. This is the most common type of laparoscopy for endometriosis. Three months after having the surgery, my chronic pelvic pain has never been worse. Ablation was not effective for treating my endometriosis.

However, there is a second kind of laparoscopy for treating endometriosis, called excision. This procedure is less common than ablation, requires more skill, and is more time-consuming.

“Excision removes endometrial implants by cutting them away from the surrounding tissue with scissors, a very fine heat gun or a laser beam…Excision allows the gynaecologist to separate the implants from the surrounding tissue, thus ensuring that the entire implant is removed and no endometrial tissue is left.”[i]

The most important difference between these two types of laparoscopic surgeries, according to a new study, is that excision is more effective than the ablation.[ii]  Researchers compared three recent studies that examined the outcomes of ablation versus excision laparoscopies for treating endometriosis.  They found that excision laparoscopies, compared to ablation, resulted in:

  • a significant reduction in painful periods
  • a significant reduction in chronic pelvic pain
  • a significant reduction in straining with bowel movements
  • a non-significant reduction in painful sex

The researchers concluded that their review “showed significantly greater improvement with laparoscopic excision compared with ablation” in the treatment of endometriosis. I wish I’d known last summer. Now I’m beginning the long process of being referred for excision surgery.

What I Wish I Knew Before Having a Laparoscopy to Treat Endometriosis

[i] http://endometriosis.org/treatments/endometriosis-surgery/

[ii] Pundir, J., & Omanwa, K. (2017, April 26). Laparoscopic excision versus ablation for endometriosis-associated pain – Updated systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Minimally Invasive Gynecologyhttp://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1553465017302637

Acceptance, Grief & Chronic Illness: The Top 4 Ways I Learned to Cope After my Diagnosis

Acceptance Grief and Chronic Illness:THE TOP 4 WAYS I LEARNED TO COPE AFTER MY DIAGNOSISYou probably vividly remember that moment when you sat in a doctor’s office and were told that the explanation for all your confusing symptoms was summed up in a word: fibromyalgia. For some of you, this diagnosis was the first chronic condition you were diagnosed with. For others, it was the second. And for those who had already been diagnosed with multiple chronic illnesses, this one was just another to add to the collection. The reality is that fibromyalgia is one of ten conditions the National Institutes of Health recently labelled Chronic Overlapping Pain Conditions (COPCs ).[1] These include chronic migraine and headache, interstitial cystitis, vulvodynia, IBS, low back pain, endometriosis, TMJ disorders, and chronic fatigue syndrome,  In addition, fibromyalgia is commonly diagnosed alongside autoimmune and inflammatory conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.[2]  Finally, anxiety and depression are much more likely to be co-morbid (found simultaneously) in people living with fibromyalgia.[3]  Many fibromyalgia patients will have the déjà-vu experience of sitting in a doctor’s office and being diagnosed with yet another chronic illness.

I recently relived that experience myself. I sat in my OB-GYN’s office and was told that a recent laparoscopy confirmed that I have endometriosis alongside my fibromyalgia. I told myself that after years of dealing with chronic pain, this was no big deal – same problem, different location. All I needed to do was learn what my treatment options were and then go home and use the self-care skills I have developed over the years to manage my pain. A few days later, while I was examining my incision scars, I broke down in tears. “Get a grip,” I told myself, “this is nothing new“. But as the pelvic pain returned, despite the laparoscopy, and I confronted the reality of dealing with another hard-to-manage chronic illness,  I had to acknowledge my feelings of anger and sadness over this new diagnosis. Intellectually I know that being diagnosed with endometriosis will not change my life as dramatically as my fibromyalgia diagnosis did. I’ve already had to leave my career because of my disabling fibro symptoms. Instead, I stay at home pursuing hobbies, like writing and calligraphy, while I look after my health.

So I wondered, why is this second diagnosis affecting me so much?  To answer this question, I needed to remember what I experienced after my first diagnosis.  As anyone who has had a significant diagnosis knows, you go through a period of grieving afterwards. Grief is the “primary emotional process of reacting to… loss” (Absenger, 2015).[4]  The stages of grief after a diagnosis include: numbness-disbelief, separation distress, depression-mourning, and recovery.[5] While there are similarities to the stages of grief that people generally experience after any loss, the grieving process for people diagnosed with a chronic illness has unique characteristics.  In an article for social workers helping clients with chronic illness, Kate Jackson (2014) explains the difference:

Most often, grief is a reaction to a single, time-limited event… Grief associated with chronic illness, however, is more complex for many individuals.  For people who are chronically ill, the losses are multiple and permanent and therefore difficult to resolve. Because these losses are unending, they’re known as infinite losses.

The scope of losses due to chronic illness are broad and complex, and they can change during the course of an illness.  The loss of health and ability can, in turn, cause losses in a person’s career, social life, sexual function, body image, relationships, parenting ability  and daily functioning, among other areas.  Most fundamentally, these secondary losses caused by chronic illness can fracture self-identity and diminish self-esteem.  The fact that many people with chronic illness feel that their experiences are invalidated by stigma and disbelief can further their sense of isolation.

The concept of infinite losses helped me to understand why a second diagnosis brought up so many difficult emotions. I have had to acknowledge that the grieving process over one, or multiple, illnesses is not a ‘one and done’ kind of thing. Grief comes in waves. If your illness changes, or you develop a new illness, your emotional response will also change because, correspondingly, the losses you experience are new and different. Prior to the pelvic pain that led to my laparoscopy, my fibromyalgia symptoms had stabilized and I had reached a state of acceptance about my illness. I wanted to believe this was a permanent state. I resisted the idea that a new condition would cause me to grieve again (because who wants to go through that once more?). However, I have come to recognize that the losses caused by endometriosis in my life are significantly different than those caused by fibromyalgia.  For me, endometriosis is entangled with my desire to start a family and be a mother, my body image and my sense of femininity. In contrast, fibromyalgia has primarily affected my career aspirations and the part of my identity that was defined by my professional accomplishments.

Once I acknowledged that I was grieving over my second diagnosis, I felt a greater sense of peace.  Resisting these feelings consumed a lot of my energy and effort. Jackson (2014) explains that “people with unresolved grief may experience more profound and difficult-to-treat depression and anxiety”.  Furthermore, the symptoms of a chronic illness can be worsened by unacknowledged grief, including pain, fatigue and cognition.  As people living with chronic illness, I think it’s important that we be on the lookout for experiencing grief when we develop a new illness, or a change in a current illness.  Understanding that grief and acceptance are fluid states can help us be more open to acknowledging grief.  It’s important to seek out support and help once you recognize these feelings. Here are a few tools and resources for coping with grief about your chronic illness, based on what has helped me:

  • Mindfulness meditation: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer of mindfulness in medicine. The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program created by Jon Kabat-Zinn to teach mindfulness to patients had demonstrated remarkable benefits for reducing chronic pain as well as anxiety and depression in fibromyalgia.[6] You can find an MBSR program in your community, or there is a free version online http://palousemindfulness.com/. Alternatively, you can learn meditation using a free app on your phone. Two of my favourites include the Insight Timer and The Meaning of Life Experiment. You can practice mindfulness through meditation, body scans, mindful eating, or mindful movement like yoga or Tai Chi.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Studies have found that participating in CBT can help reduce pain, depressive thoughts, and improve quality of life for people with chronic pain.[7] One of the core parts of the program is learning to identify negative thinking traps, or ‘cognitive distortions’.  These are thoughts that “sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves” (Grohol, 2016).[8] These programs also focus on helpful behaviour changes like learning deep relaxation as well as pacing activities. CBT programs are run in most communities and your doctor should be able to refer you to one.
  • Find a support group, whether in person or online. It can be incredibly powerful to know that you are not alone in facing the challenges caused by your chronic illness. There are private facebook groups for every condition, where you can find support and people with shared experiences. The #spoonie hashtag can help you find other people with chronic illness on twitter. If you are able to, an in-person support group can be an important source of connection if you are struggling. No matter how much support your family and friends can provide, it can help to talk with people who have the same condition(s) you do.
  • Talk with a professional therapist: Unresolved grief is a difficult issue to work through. Many people benefit from talking with an experienced therapist, one-on-one. My advice is to find a counsellor with experience in working with clients who have chronic illness- your specialist may be able to refer you. It’s critical that you ascertain that the therapist validates the existence of your chronic illness and does not tell clients that the illness ‘is all in their head’. Think of the first appointment as an interview, where you see if you are compatible and ask about their professional experience. You may wish to learn more about the therapeutic approaches used by different therapists prior to choosing one. For example, I found that the empathetic, strengths-based counselling provided by a social worker fit much better with my personality than the objective, analytical technique used by a psychiatrist.

Acceptance Grief and Chronic Illness

[1]http://www.overlappingconditions.org/About_COPCs

[2] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025619615002438

[3] https://www.verywell.com/fibromyalgia-comorbid-overlapping-conditions-716184

[4] Absenger, W. (2015). Mindfulness and the Stages of Grief in Chronic Disease. ACEF. Retrieved 15 April 2017 from http://amacf.org/mindfulness-stages-of-grief-in-chronic-disease/

[5] National Cancer Institute. (2014, October 8). PDQ® grief, bereavement, and coping with loss. National Cancer Institute. Retrieved 15 April 2017 from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/supportivecare/bereavement/patient

[6] Paul Grossman, Ulrike Gilmer, Annette Raysz and Ulrike Kesper. 2007. Mindfulness Training as an Intervention for Fibromyalgia: Evidence of Postintervention and 3-Year Follow-up Benefits in Well-being. Psychology and Psychosomatics 76: 226-233

[7] Holmes, A., Christelis, N., and Arnold, C. (2012). Depression and chronic pain. MJA Open Suppl (4):17-20.

[8] Grohol, J. (2016). 15 Common Cognitive Distortions. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 15, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/

Evidence for New Fibro Drug Therapies: Options to Take to Your Doctor if Your Current Treatments aren’t Working

Evidence for New Fibro Drug Therapies: Options to Take to Your Doctor if You Current Treatments aren't Working

New research into drug therapies helps people with fibromyalgia increase their treatment options. Learning about these new medication options can help you and your doctor you find the best treatment regimen for you.

If you live with fibromyalgia, you know firsthand that one of the primary features of this condition is a lower pain threshold compared to healthy people. There are a number of changes in the body caused by fibromyalgia that increase our sensitivity to pain. One set of changes affect how the spinal cord relays pain sensations from the body to the brain. Several drugs target specific receptors, called NMDA receptors, which are located in deep spinal neurons that carry sensory information to regions in the brain that relate to pain processing. NMDA receptors are activated by signals relayed to the spinal cord by peripheral neurons that sense pressure in muscles, tendons, etc. This type of receptor is activated by the neurotransmitter glutamate. Studies have shown elevated levels of glutamate in the brain and spinal cord of patients with fibromyalgia.[i] There is a strong correlation between elevated glutamate and increased pain in people with fibromyalgia. NMDA receptors can amplify pain signals in patients with fibromyalgia because they are activated to a greater degree by the presence of increased glutamate concentrations in the brain/spinal cord, which trigger pain signals sent to the brain by the deep spinal neurons.

NMDA receptors can be prevented from firing by certain compounds. Two drugs in particular seem effective at decreasing NDMDA receptor activation. One is called memantine. Memantine blocks NMDA receptors and decreases glutamate levels. “A randomised, double-blind study in 63 patients with fibromyalgia compared memantine… with placebo over a 6-month period. Compared to placebo there was a significant reduction in pain and pain threshold and improvement in global function, mood and quality of life”.[ii] Memantine was originally developed to treat diabetes, but has also been used to treat dementia; it has been found to also be effective in treating chronic regional pain syndrome.

Ketamine is another potent NMDA receptor blocker (yes, the illegal party drug). Studies have shown that it can effectively reduce pain for a subset of fibromyalgia patients “Thus, of 58 patients with fibromyalgia in the above 3 studies, 33 (57%) responded to low dose ketamine (0.3mg / kg) infusion, as defined by a reduction of pain by 50% or more.”[iii] However, studies have not adequately investigated long term use of ketamine. However, ketamine has been proven effective in treating chronic regional pain syndrome, which shares many similar characteristics to fibromyalgia.

Another interesting tip focuses on diet changes that can help lower pain levels. Glutamate is found in MSG (monosodium glutamate). Other related compounds, called excitotoxins, like aspartame, can cause harmful over-activity in the brain. “One study showed that 4 weeks of exclusion of monosodium glutamate (MSG), aspartame, and other excitotoxins, resulted in over 30% improvement in fibromyalgia symptoms in 84% of those who completed the diet”.[iv]

What about inflammation and fibromyalgia? A number of studies have found increased levels of pro-inflammatory messengers (called cytokines) in blood collected from FM patients.[v]  A drug called low-dose naltrexone has been investigated for its potential benefits in treating fibromyalgia because of its anti-inflammatory properties.[vi] Naltrexone is primarily used to treat opioid overdoses, but when taken at a low dose before bed, studies have found a statistically significant reduction in FM pain compared to the placebo. A recent study found that “after eight weeks of LDN administration, plasma levels of a range of broadly pro-inflammatory cytokines were decreased. In addition, we found that participants reported less pain and symptoms following LDN. Combined, these results support the hypothesis that LDN may help chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia, by acting as an atypical anti-inflammatory medication”.[vii] Pain reduction was found to be 15% and symptom reduction 18%. While these results are modest, for many FM patients desperate for options, low-dose naltrexone could be a valuable part of their treatment regimen.

Evidence for New Fibro Drug Therapies: Options to Take to Your Doctor if You Current Treatments aren't Working

Works Cited

Littlejohn, G., & Guymer, E. (2017). Modulation of NMDA Receptor Activity in Fibromyalgia. Biomedicines 5 (5), 15-27.

Parkitny, L., & Younger, J. (2017). Reduced Pro-Inflammatory Cytokines after Eight Weeks of Low-Dose Naltrexone for Fibromyalgia. Biomedicines 5 (2), 16.

Ross, R., Jones, K., Bennett, R., Ward, R., Druker, B., & Wood, L. (2010). Preliminary Evidence of Increased Pain and Elevated Cytokines in Fibromyalgia Patients with Defective Growth Hormone Response to Exercise. Open Immunol J, 3, 9-18.

Citations

[i] (Littlejohn & Guymer, 2017)

[ii] (Littlejohn & Guymer, 2017)

[iii] (Littlejohn & Guymer, 2017)

[iv] (Littlejohn & Guymer, 2017)

[v] (Ross, Jones, Bennett, Ward, Druker, & Wood, 2010)

[vi] (Parkitny & Younger, 2017)

[vii] (Parkitny & Younger, 2017)

Could a Treatment for Herpes also be Effective for Treating Fibromyalgia?

Could a treatment for herpes also be effective for treating fibromyalgia?A recent study investigated whether it would be effective to  treat fibromyalgia patients with an anti-viral and anti-inflammatory drug combination that is normally used to treat the herpes virus (cold sores or genital herpes). The anti-viral drug used in this study also treats the shingles virus (which additionally causes chickenpox). Specifically, researchers tested a famciclovir + celecoxib drug combination called IMC-1. The study was based on the hypothesis that life stressors could re-activate latent viral infections  (viral infections from earlier in life that become dormant), which in turn cause fibromyalgia to develop. This hypothesis is based on anecdotal evidence of patients who develop fibromyalgia after experiencing infections and/or periods of stress. Does that sound familiar?

The results of this double-blind, placebo-controlled study were positive: participants receiving the anti-virals had significantly less pain and fatigue compared to participants who received a placebo. Encouragingly, IMC-1 was well tolerated by study participants, with few side-effects. Researchers concluded that the effectiveness of the anti-viral drugs suggests that the herpes virus may play a role in the development of fibromyalgia for some patients. Interestingly, this conclusion was based on the efficacy of the drug rather than testing the study participants for the herpes virus. I wonder whether this line of investigation could be expanded to include other potential viral triggers.

This hypothesis resonates with me because in the months before I developed fibromyalgia, I had a mumps infection, which I always attributed as a trigger for the onset of my fibromyalgia. In addition, I have had shingles, which the anti-viral used in the study also treats. This is a fascinating new area of research that will hopefully provide more answers and solutions to the treatment of fibromyalgia. In the meantime, if you have the herpes virus (or other significant viral infection) and fibromyalgia, I recommend taking this study to your doctor to see if IMC-1 might be an effective option for you!

Reference:

Pridgen, W. et al. (2017). A famciclovir + celecoxib combination treatment is safe and efficacious in the treatment of fibromyalgia. J. Pain Res., 10, 451-460. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5328426/

Beginning Again: Living with the Ups and Downs of Life with Chronic Illness

Originally published on ProHealth.com

Beginning Again: Living with the Ups and Downs of Life with Chronic IllnessI’m sitting here at home, in the middle of the afternoon, still in my pyjamas.  All I have accomplished today is breakfast and coffee.  Over the past, week my schedule has gone completely off-track.  It started with a significant increase in my endometriosis pain, then worsening insomnia/daytime fatigue, and finally, my neck and upper back decided to get in on the fun by seizing up.  This runaway train was accelerated by lack of exercise, increased anxiety and cabin fever.

Watching my goals, plans, and self-care routines careen out of control is sometimes harder for me to accept the symptoms that come with a flare-up.  Maybe it’s because I have always been a bit of a control freak, but the sense of helplessness, frustration and self-doubt that accompanies this situation is one of the most difficult aspects of living with fibromyalgia for me. This time, as I was venting about how it felt like my daily life had come tumbling down like a house of cards, a question occurred to me: What if the problem isn’t a failure to control or manage my schedule during a flare-up, but a failure to understand that living with chronic illness inevitably involves ups and downs?

Beginning Again: Living with the Ups and Downs of Life with Chronic Illness

The practice of mindfulness meditation offers some answers to this question.  Renowned mindfulness teacher Sharon Salzberg writes that, in contrast to our conditioned belief that self-blame and fear of failure help us succeed, “ease in letting go and kindness in starting over is a lot more effective”.[1]  Repeatedly focusing on negative self-judgment and regret is draining, discouraging and ultimately unsustainable.  Meditation can help us practice being compassionate and non-judgemental towards ourselves, helping us to let go and begin again when things don’t go our way. During meditation, the aim is to focus our attention in the present moment, by concentrating on breathing, scanning the body, or repeating a mantra. Inevitably, we lose focus and become distracted by thoughts, worries, plans or emotions. When we realize this has happened, we gently bring our awareness back to the present moment – this breath, this step, this repetition.

The moment we realize our mind has wandered is the crucial moment of the practice. We have a choice: do we berate ourselves for ‘failing’ and force our attention back to the task at hand? Or do we react with kindness towards ourselves and patiently return our attention to the present moment? Salzberg explains “The invitation to begin again (and again and again) that meditation affords is an invitation to the practice of self-compassion – to heal through letting go rather than harming ourselves with cycles of self-doubt, judgment, and criticism.” From this point of view, meditation is like a playing field where I can train for how to cope with the ups and downs of life with chronic illness. I have realized that I can’t control these fluctuations, but I can change how I relate to them. Instead of reacting with self-recrimination and a sense of helplessness, I can respond with compassion and focus my attention on beginning again in this moment.

There is something incredibly hopeful about knowing that “Always, we begin again”, as St. Benedict wrote. It can also be daunting to think that you will have to begin again…and again…and again.  Recently, I was introduced to the concept of tapas in yoga philosophy.  The word is derived from the Sanskrit verb “to burn” and is often translated as “fiery discipline.”[2] Nobody other than those who live with chronic illness can understand the degree of strength it takes to wake up and try again in the face of all our daily challenges.  We are experts in tapas without even knowing it!  I believe that we should direct the fiery discipline that living with chronic illness cultivates in us towards starting over in each moment – instead of cracking the whip and pushing ourselves harder. If we are fiercely dedicated to beginning anew after each setback, then we can change our relationship to the difficult experiences we encounter.

For me, the unpredictability of living with fibromyalgia is one of the hardest parts. Life with chronic illness is an extreme form of constant uncertainty. As people, we tend to prefer stability to uncertainty. Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun and author, calls this the “fundamental ambiguity of being human” – the longing for predictability and permanence despite the reality that life means constant change (in other words – “this too shall pass”).[3] Chodron argues that resisting this reality leads to suffering and accepting it means freedom. Opening ourselves to the dynamic, changing nature of our experiences releases us from expectations that things should be this way or that way.

For example,  When we try to run away from difficult feelings or hold on to pleasant feelings, we only create more challenges for ourselves.  I feel a sense of freedom by accepting that living with chronic illness means inevitably fluctuating between better and worse days.  Struggling against this by trying to control for every potential outcome is exhausting.  Blaming myself for failing after every flare is depressing.  This doesn’t mean practicing self-care or pacing is pointless!  It just means that I accept that I can’t control every situation and I am not responsible for every setback.

Here is my new intention. Tomorrow, or the next day, or in a few weeks, I’ll have another flare up.  I will try to understand this as part of the natural cycle of living with my illness. I will be compassionate towards myself when my schedule goes off track.  I will focus my attention on the present moment and the next best thing I can do for myself.  I will draw on the tapas that I have cultivated for strength. And I will begin again.

[1] Salzberg, S. (2015). The fractal moment: An invitation to begin again. On Being. Retrieved Nov 10, 2016 from http://www.onbeing.org/blog/the-fractal-moment-an-invitation-to-begin-again/7589

[2] Lasater, J. (2007, Aug. 28). Cultivate your connections. Yoga Journal. Retrieved Nov 10, 2016 from http://www.yogajournal.com/article/philosophy/cultivate-your-connections/

[3] Chodron, P. (2012). The fundamental ambiguity of being human. Tricycle Magazine. Retrieved Nov 10, 2016 from http://tricycle.org/magazine/fundamental-ambiguity-being-human/

When the Forecast Calls for Fibro Fog: PillDrill Helps You Remember Your Medications

I have been given this product as part of a product review through the Chronic Illness Bloggers network. Although the product was a gift, all opinions in this review remain my own and I was in no way influenced by the company.

I am an absent minded person.  I should have a beeper on my glasses, my phone and probably my mind, to help me find where they wander off to.  Fibro fog has made my memory even worse. Forgetting where you put your cup of coffee is an inconvenience, but forgetting your medication can be dangerous.  As you can imagine, I sometimes forget whether I took a prescription or accidentally take two doses.  I haven’t  found a reliable solution.  Using a medication reminder app is just another thing to forget. The PillDrill is different.  It is a unique medication tracking system that has actually worked for me.

pilldrill

What is it?  The PillDrill hub looks like a digital clock (which it is, too).  When it is time to take your medication, it flashes, beeps and shows the name of the medication(s) you have programmed it remind you about.  These reminder features are customizable, in case you don’t want it to make noise or to flash. The PillDrill has a scanning function. The device comes with scanning tags that you attach to your pill bottles or a weekly pill strip provided with your hub.  Once you have taken your medication, you scan it on the hub by touching the tag to the scanning button and it logs your dose as taken!  The PillDrill is managed using an app from your mobile device or computer.  It syncs using your wifi network.  The app is used to create and edit your medication schedule, get reminders, and log doses on the go.  You can set it up so that a loved one can also get notifications about your medication adherence.  The PillDrill comes with a “mood cube” that lets you track how you’re feeling during the day so you can monitor your daily health patterns.

Benefits: I have the hub on a side table in my living room. The flashing light ensures that I remember it is time to take my medications. On the go, the app notifications remind me on my phone. Scanning each medication has made sure I don’t accidentally take a second dose. Plus it’s kind of fun to scan the pill bottle! It’s helpful to have a record of when I have taken each medication for reference. Since I started using the PIllDrill, I haven’t forgotten a dose or taken a double dose.  In addition,  the device itself is aesthetically pleasing, and I like the teal and white colors.

Cons: I did face a few challenges using the PillDrill. I chose to put the scanning tags on my pill bottles rather than the weekly pill strip. The problem is that, once the bottle was finished, I didn’t have another tag for the new bottle. You are supplied with only about 25 tags. If I had used the weekly pill strip provided, I could have reused the tags (because they go on the strip rather than the pill bottle). Alternatively, PillDrill provides tag holders, which are attached to a pill bottle with an elastic band and can be used for successive pill bottles. It would have been great if more than 10 tag holders  had been provided so that I could have used them for all my supplements/medications. If you run out of tags, you need to purchase more from the PillDrill website. I recommend attaching the scanning tags to the weekly pill strip and using the tag holders.

When I put the tag on the lid of a supplement bottle that was made with metal rather than plastic, it didn’t scan. This can be avoided using a tag holder, but it would have been helpful to have been warned about this in the product help guide.

Finally, when I was attempting to sync the hub to my wifi network using the PillDrill app on my android phone, it was not effective. When I used my iPad, it worked easily. Having more troubleshooting instructions in the help guide would have been useful for this problem.

Final thoughts: The bottom line is that the PillDrill is effective at helping you remember to stick to your medication schedule and is a useful product for anyone with chronic illness who takes a number of pills each day.

The PillDrill is available here.

Should You Try Yoga as a Treatment for Your Fibromyalgia?

Should you try yoga as a treatment for your fibromyalgia?Yoga. It’s everywhere. From passers-by on the sidewalk toting yoga mats, to health headlines in the media, it seems like yoga has saturated the mainstream. But if you live with a chronic condition, like fibromyalgia (FM), you may be unaware of what twisting yourself into a pretzel has do with managing your daily symptoms. In fact, you may be unaware that yoga isn’t about twisting yourself into a pretzel at all.

Research is clearly on the side of trying yoga to manage your fibromyalgia symptoms. The Oregon Health and Science University published a study in 2010 that compared the impact of an eight week yoga program on FM patients against a control group who received standard FM treatment. Researchers found that “pain was reduced in the yoga group by an average of 24 percent, fatigue by 30 percent and depression by 42 percent”.

So what is yoga actually all about? And how can it help you manage your chronic condition?  To answer these questions, I asked my good friend and yoga therapist, Kathrin Gottwald, who also blogs at Soulicious Moments.  Kathrin explains that “A carefully tailored yoga practice can not only lead to more flexibility and muscle tone, but also more awareness and potentially a different way of experiencing yourself and life.” This mind-body aspect of yoga exercise is at the core of what makes it effective. “Yoga means union,” explains Kathrin, “it is a practice to establish a feeling of connection to ourselves, others and the world around us.”

Should you try yoga as a treatment for your fibromyalgia?

Before my diagnosis, I was a beginner yoga student. Although I was never a very athletic person, I found I craved my weekly class. Week to week, I noticed that my strength, balance and flexibility improved. I enjoyed being in my body, rather than in my head, for those 60 minutes. After my diagnosis, I assumed by yoga days were over. I could barely sit on the floor, after all!

Eventually,  I attended a pain management class, which included a yoga component led by a teacher who herself had fibromyalgia. I began to include certain yoga poses into my daily stretching routine. Finally, I found a DVD with a yoga routine designed specifically for FM (see below). The genius part of the program is that they show each pose at 3 levels of ability, so you can customize your program based on your daily level of pain. I try to do this routine twice a week. I have the same benefits as before, even though my yoga routine is much gentler and shorter than before: feeling a positive connection to my body, feeling more present, and feeling my flexibility, balance and strength improve.

Beyond physical benefits, yoga is about developing body awareness and mental presence. Kathrin elaborates: “Yoga is not about perfecting the poses or contorting yourself into difficult positions, but it is all about how you relate to yourself and that which you encounter and experience in life. Especially for people living with chronic conditions it can be very beneficial to find skillful ways of relating to themselves and their illness.”

I also include a breathing practice three to four times a week along with my yoga routine. This is also an important part of yoga. As Kathrin notes, “In yoga the breath is considered our life force. The practice is to consciously move this energy within you and use it skilfully. Observing the breath and resting your awareness on your breath is already a yoga practice in itself.” Even if you are having a flare, and all you can do is breathe, you can still practice yoga. This practice has to do with sitting or lying quietly and focusing on the breath. When thoughts or sensations distract you, as they inevitably will, you gently bring your attention back to the breath as soon as you realize you have gotten carried away.

I find yoga helps me ‘practice’ being in the here and now, helps me to know the contents of my own mind and heart better, and increases my awareness of my body, so I can check in with what I am able to do day to day. In Kathrin’s words, “Yoga practice starts with being. We do not need to constantly strive to be different and improve. When we practice, we are just striving to be more fully ourselves.”

So if you want to start a yoga practice, where do you begin? You can work one-on-one with a yoga therapist or teacher. Kathrin explains that “in yoga therapy you work with a specific intention of finding more skilful ways of relating to yourself and your condition. This is a very personal and individual path. The yoga therapist will develop a targeted practice for you, which will be individually adapted as needed”.

More and more studios are beginning to offer targeted classes, like yoga for back pain or chair yoga, which you may be able to join. I definitely recommend asking if you can observe a class before joining, to ensure it is at your level and uses a therapeutic approach.

If this is out of your price range, several resources you can consider are listed below. These include instructional DVDs or online routines you can do at home. This is usually better for people with some yoga experience, to avoid injury.  However you start, I hope you find greater presence, connection, and health!

 

Real Life Round-up: Bloggers Share What It’s Really Like to Live with a Chronic Condition

REAL LIFE ROUND-UP: BLOGGERS SHARE WHAT IT'S REALLY LIKE TO LIVE WITH A CHRONIC CONDITIONLife with a chronic condition is a kind of quiet extreme. Often, you’ll find us resting at home, surrounded by blankets, pillows, heating pads, tea cups, pill bottles, furry friends and a tablet or tv. It may seem like a quiet kind of life, but it’s actually a constant breath-taking roller-coaster. Internally, physical symptoms of pain, fatigue, and zillion other things are in a constant state of flux. Emotionally, we react to the confusion in our bodies and the dramatic changes to our lives. An incredible strength is forged by waking up each day and trying again to not only survive, but live.

This past week, my endometriosis pain continued to worsen, with weeks yet to go on my post-laparoscopy consult. My back spasmed. I had a few dark 3 am moments of wondering if I will ever find answers or solutions. At the same time, I had a really freeing realization about my internal critic. I’m always after myself to be more productive, equating self-worth to overachieving. I listened to a meditation about radical self-acceptance. What if your internal critic became your chief encourager? I’m trying to be much more mindful of those internal criticisms- and challenging my internal critic to be kinder and more encouraging. It feels like a load off my back. Every time I grow as person because of my chronic illness experiences, it feels like a silver lining to all the difficulties.

Here is a round-up of fantastic blog posts about real life with chronic conditions – the unfiltered truth about the challenges of this life and the ways that these bloggers have found to live better despite the obstacles!

REAL LIFE ROUND-UP: BLOGGERS SHARE WHAT IT'S REALLY LIKE TO LIVE WITH A CHRONIC CONDITION

Brainless Blogger Understanding and Being There is all about the misconceptions normal folks have about chronic pain but also encourages #spoonies to be patient with their family/friends as long as they try to be there for us & to understand our reality.

Color me lyme Words for the Chronically Ill Patience. Never Give Up! Believe. This post talks about how these affirming words can help on the illness journey. “This doesn’t mean we should corral our drive or initiative…[but] there are times when we have no choice but to let PATIENCE – and faith – take the lead.   (Easier said than done, right?!)”

Damsel in a dress. Why I talk openly about being sick. A powerful and humorous advocacy piece on challenging the stigma of invisible illness. “I sat back and realized that my illness has taken a lot from me, but there is one thing it has given me: a voice. I knew I had to unapologetically talk about my illness because being sick isn’t something I should have to apologize for.”

Invisible Warrior Minding the Pain A thoughtful post on using meditation to manage pain, especially if the pain is always with you. In order to break the pain cycle, we need to learn how to understand and work with the pain and our reactions to it. I really like the list of guided meditations at the end, using the awesome Insight Timer app

Let’s Feel Better The Determined Weeper A funny take on the emotional and physical side-effects of changing medications. I completely relate to being in a “chemical stew” as you come off a medication in order to try to get pregnant.

Being Lydia Is it all in my head Ever wished a test result would be positive? Then you probably have a chronic illness that constantly tests negative…over and over and over in your search for answers.

 

 

 

 

The Mental Torture of Medical Waiting Lists (& How I Learned to Cope)

The Mental Torture of Medical Waiting ListsWaiting.  Before this past year, I would have described waiting as boring, frustrating and draining.  Then I spent 12 months in pain, waiting for a specialist appointment, waiting for tests, and waiting for surgery.  After all that, I’m still waiting for an answer and a solution to my symptoms.  Now I would describe waiting as suffocating, crazy-making and excruciating.  Waiting can become a form of mental torture when your health, daily functioning and quality of life are at the mercy of hospital bureaucrats.

Exactly one year ago this month, I went to my family doctor because of an increase in pelvic pain.  Not only were my periods more painful, but I was experiencing debilitating cramp-like pain more days of the month then not.  My family doctor referred me to my OB-GYN for consultation at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.  I had to wait three months just for an appointment date.  Then, the appointment was rescheduled twice. The office assistant would not call me back, even to give me a rough estimate for when a makeup appointment might be rescheduled.  At one point I even broke down on the phone while leaving a message for the admin assistant. More than anything else, I felt helpless in the face of this mysterious pain that was making my day-to-day life so difficult, with no ability to control the outcome.

Finally, 5 months after the initial referral, I saw the specialist.  We decided a laparoscopy was the best course of action for diagnosis and treatment of suspected endometriosis.  Her assistant told me to call back in two months in order to book a surgery date.  When I called, she told me to call back in another two months.  I called back and left a message.  No reply.  Two weeks later, another message.  No reply.  During this time my pain had spiked significantly and was now difficult to manage, even with multiple pain medications.

I felt trapped.  If I tried to see a different doctor, it would take months for an initial appointment.  If I tried to even make an appointment with the same doctor, prior to the surgery, it would take months.  The pain was making it difficult to socialize, to accomplish day to day activities, to exercise, or to even go on a date with my husband.  I felt angry and anxious.  My mental health was deteriorating.

I’m not alone in this experience. Researchers have found the waiting period can significantly impact the health of patients.  Studies have consistently found negative effects in patients waiting for test results, ranging from adverse effects on recovery times, wound healing times, reduced immune defences, and worsening of side effects from medications.  Researchers hypothesize that these effects may be due to anxiety over test results, which is supported by the finding that waiting patients have increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Similar impacts have been seen in chronic pain patients waiting for treatment. The study concluded that waiting for longer than six months caused a reduction in quality of life and psychological wellbeing.

Finally, finally, I got the date for the surgery, two weeks beforehand.  It went smoothly enough.  They found and removed endometriosis lesions.  I struggled through the initial recovery.  One week later, the pelvic pain came back.  Same place, same feeling, same pattern.  Perhaps it is part of recovery, or perhaps the surgery wasn’t the solution.  Now, I have to make another appointment and – you guessed it –wait.

How you react to the stress of waiting for diagnosis or a test result may be partly determined by your personality characteristics.  One study found that a high need for closure -something I can definitely relate to- increases anxiety during the waiting period.  In contrast, if you have a high tolerance for uncertainty, you’re less likely to be anxious.  Do you tend to assume the worst?  This characteristic, which researchers called “defensive pessimism,” also increased waiting anxiety.  If you tend to assume things will work out (“dispositional optimism”), then you are less likely to experience anxiety. Constantly ruminating on the outcome of the test result during the waiting period also increases anxiety.

Interrupt the Flow of Negative Self-Talk

So what can you do you if you have certain characteristics that may increase your stress levels during a waiting period for a diagnosis, procedure or test result?  Firstly, I learned that it is important to interrupt constantly ruminating on the upcoming medical appointment. Try to be aware of your thought patterns and self-talk during this stressful period.  I try to regularly check-in with myself during the day.  If you notice that you are dwelling on the frustration of waiting, acknowledge it.  Then make a deliberate choice to return yourself to the present.  A few minutes of deep breathing or meditation may help to relax you and create space between you and these stressful thoughts.

Distract Your Mind (or, Your new excuse for binge-watching Netflix)

Distraction is another valuable tool.  Decide to focus on something that will occupy your mind rather than ruminating on a positive test result or unwelcome diagnosis.  This might be a good time to re- watch your favorite comedies, because who doesn’t need a good laugh?

Challenge Self-Judgement

When I find myself thinking about how long I have to wait for my next doctor’s appointment, or my frustration at the lack of answers, I find it really helpful to say to myself “OK, here are those thoughts again”.  I’m trying to be accepting of these thoughts, because it’s only natural to be frustrated and stressed in this situation.  But if there’s nothing I can do about it here and now, then I try to refocus my attention on whatever I have going on in the moment.

It’s a daily struggle to cope with the mental torture of the medical waiting list. Negative emotions are natural and experiencing them is not a failure to manage your feelings. That’s a lesson I keep re-learning. I try to see it as a question of what is the most helpful response to the negative emotions, rather than getting frustrated with myself for feeling down in the first place.

Self-Care, Self-Care, Self-Care

It’s very important to practice self-care and stress management during this time.  Activities that have been proven to reduce anxiety include yoga, exercise, meditation, guided visualization, walking in nature, journaling and deep breathing.  Personally I find regular meditation really helpful for my mental sanity.  During this time, it’s helpful to refocus on the fundamentals of a healthy lifestyle, like trying to get enough sleep, eating nutritious food and connecting with your social support system.

Here are few resources for staying present and de-stressing:

References:

Hoffman, J. (2012). The anxiety of waiting for test results. New York Times. Retrieved 10 Feb. 2017 from https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/the-anxiety-of-waiting-for-test-results/

Lynch, M. et al. (2008). A systematic review of the effect of waiting for treatment for chronic pain. PAIN 136(1-2): 97-116. Retrieved 10 Feb. 2017 from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304395907003442.

Markman, A. (2014). Waiting is the hardest part, but you can make it easier. Psych Today. Retrieved 10 Feb. 2017 from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ulterior-motives/201407/the-waiting-is-the-hardest-part-you-can-make-it-easier