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Doctors Struggle to Treat Mysterious and Unbearable Pain

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    Post Doctors Struggle to Treat Mysterious and Unbearable Pain


    New York Times
    May 30, 2006
    Doctors Struggle to Treat Mysterious and Unbearable Pain
    By KATHLEEN McGRORY

    It was supposed to be a typical ballet class. Cynthia Toussaint, then a senior dance major at the University of California, Irvine, engaged in her usual stretching routine: she raised her left leg to the barre and slowly bent her upper body down to her right knee.

    For a moment, she delighted in the long stretch. But as she returned to an upright position, she felt a sudden pop in her hamstring. "It felt like a guitar string had been plucked and it had broken," said Ms. Toussaint, who is now 45.

    An intense burning sensation followed; it felt as if her leg had been doused in gasoline and set on fire, she said. The next day, the college athletics trainer determined that she had pulled her hamstring. But even years later, the pain would not subside. It migrated to her other leg, leaving her bedridden for nearly a decade, and overtook her vocal cords, leaving her temporarily mute.

    All the while, doctors puzzled over and even doubted her mysterious condition.

    Ms. Toussaint now knows that she is among an estimated one million Americans living with complex regional pain syndrome, a nerve disorder formerly known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome. For patients with the disorder, a trauma as mild as a fractured wrist or a twisted ankle can cause the nerves to misfire, so much so that intense pain messages are constantly sent to the brain.

    For the past 150 years, so little was known about complex regional pain syndrome that it was often diagnosed as psychosomatic. But doctors now believe that the condition complicates 1 of every 1,200 traumatic injuries. And desperate patients are turning to new, often unproven, drugs and treatments. "It is still quite a mysterious condition," said Dr. Scott M. Fishman, a pain management specialist at the University of California, Davis, and the author of "The War on Pain."

    "It raises doubts in the eyes of doctors and the people that are looking for hard lab evidence or good imaging confirmation," Dr. Fishman said. "With this condition, we simply don't have that."

    Baffling as it may be, the syndrome is not new to the medical literature. It was first documented by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, a Civil War surgeon. But few physicians are familiar with it; the average patient sees 8 to 10 doctors before a diagnosis is made, according to a recent survey by American RSDHope, a support organization.

    Pain is the hallmark of the condition, which outranks cancer as the most painful disease on the McGill Pain Index. For some, the sensation remains in one place, most commonly one of the extremities. For others, it spreads throughout the body, making even a light touch or minor changes in temperature agonizing.

    For Ms. Toussaint, as for many other patients, the pain was life altering. When she tore her hamstring, she was on the verge of completing her bachelor's degree. She was also being considered for a part on the television series "Fame." But the injury left her in debilitating pain. She could no longer stand on her own or leave her house; riding in a car on the bumpy California roads was torture.

    Ms. Toussaint dropped out of school and fell into a deep depression, she said. It took 13 1/2 years for her disorder to be diagnosed. Dozens of doctors told her it was "all in her head"; one even suggested she suffered from stage fright.

    Without clear clues as to what induces the syndrome or who is particularly susceptible, doctors say that treating it is a challenge. Sympathetic nerve blocks can reduce the pain, and doctors say the relief often lasts longer than the anesthetic.

    More than two dozen drugs are also being used to treat the pain. But none of the medications, which range from acetaminophen and ibuprofen to morphine and methadone, have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for this use.

    "The myth is that this condition isn't treatable, but the truth is that it responds to the same kinds of treatments that have been found effective for other neuropathic pain," said Dr. Anne Louise Oaklander, director of the nerve injury unit at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor of neurology at Harvard.

    Dr. Russell K. Portenoy, chairman of the department of pain medicine and palliative care at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, added that treatment was "a trial and error" process.

    Doctors tend to use the drugs that are most commonly prescribed for other conditions before the drugs that are less commonly used," he said. "But in many cases, doctors need to perform sequential trials to find out which drug or combination of drugs helps the most."

    Dr. Portenoy said he is a consultant for drug companies but not on work related to the syndrome or its treatment.

    Another treatment is to implant an electrical stimulator near the base of the spinal cord or the injured limb. The device sends low-level electrical signals to the spinal cord or to specific nerves and blocks pain signals from reaching the brain.

    Dr. Robert J. Schwartzman of the Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia is skeptical of the electrical stimulators. Although he first began implanting them in patients in 1986, he no longer does. "Long term," he said, "stimulators don't work. From what I've seen, they wear out and then they stop working."

    Dr. Schwartzman treats the condition with ketamine, an anesthetic that blocks one of the body's pain receptors. In most cases, this five-day inpatient therapy reduced the pain significantly for three to six months, he said.

    In addition, a 10-day outpatient procedure more than 1,200 people are on a waiting list for it is being tested in a controlled experiment. Although the trial has been approved by the F.D.A., it is awaiting approval by Drexel's institutional review board.

    Dr. Schwartzman has also sent the most extreme cases the 30 patients who were found to be intractable to all other treatments to Germany for five days of prolonged ketamine anesthesia, enough to put them into a coma.

    Ten patients were completely relieved of their pain, Dr. Schwartzman said, noting that the treatment has not been approved in the United States.

    Some doctors have strong concerns about the ketamine treatments. Dr. Oaklander, for one, believes there is not enough research to support its effectiveness, especially in light of the risks.

    Either way, said Ms. Toussaint, who has not had the therapy herself, "It says a lot about this disease that we are willing to be put in comas." New research is also helping doctors understand the pain syndrome. In early 2006, a team at Massachusetts General was the first to identify organic nerve injuries in a large group of people with the disorder. The research, published in February in the journal Pain, confirmed that the syndrome was not psychosomatic, said Dr. Oaklander, who led the study.

    This progress is promising for Ms. Toussaint. Since her illness was diagnosed in 1995, medications have reduced her pain, enabling her to stand and speak again. She and her partner, John Garrett, now manage For Grace, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing awareness of complex regional pain syndrome. Ms. Toussaint is also running for the California State Assembly on a health-based platform.

    "People see me and they recognize me as the ballerina, but they don't remember the name of my disease," she said recently, "but that's all about to change."

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    Next time I'm pissing and moaning about a paper cut, I'll reread this article. Can't imagine what these people are going through!

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