As you may have noticed, I haven’t posted in a while. Mostly I’ve just been busy—working, teaching, writing my dissertation, and trying to having something of a social life. Basically I’ve been playing at being a normal person. And I did a pretty good job at it, too. This weekend though, all the small complaints that I had been collecting over the past few weeks (feet too sore to wear heels, intense morning stiffness, knee pain, fatigue, photosensitivity, GI issues) seemed to snowball together, and now I’m lying on the couch feeling sorry for myself. I like to think I’m getting better at not blaming myself and riding the wave of flare and remission, but it’s still really hard. Sometimes I feel like as soon as I get everything under control and establish a routine, something new pops up to wipe me out again.
Between the Arava and inflammation I’ve lost more than 10 pounds since August, despite still being on a low-moderate dose of prednisone. While for many people that would be a victory, for me it isn’t—I’m already at the low end of normal BMI. The GI symptoms I’ve had recently, which may or may not be from the Arava, have not helped either. I’ve been tracking my stress levels and watching the foods I eat, cutting out wheat and dairy, but it just seems to be totally random and unpredictable. I’d like to exercise too, but I don’t have the energy (yes, that old chestnut). And it’s hard for me to take the compliment when people tell me how good I look, since I feel so unwell and unfit inside. I suppose I should be pleased that my make-up skills are good enough that I don’t look like death warmed over.
All this makes it sound terrible to be me, but that isn’t really the case. I’m just frustrated with my body. I really am grateful and content most of the time. I have lots of love in my life and people who are looking out for me; I have a job that I find satisfying and fulfilling; I have my academic work—which I love, even if academia makes me a little crazy sometimes; I’m financially stable and I have decent health insurance, though I often have to fight to get what I need; and I have various volunteer and social commitments that keep me engaged in my community when I’m able. It’s a good life, even if it’s not the one I thought I was going to have.
In the last few days, my Google News feed has been full of media reports about a recent study that was published in the medical journal Arthritis Care & Research. The complete title of the article is “The public health impact of risk factors for physical inactivity in adults with rheumatoid arthritis” and the abstract can be found here. The preferred headlines in places like USAToday, WebMD, and About.com read “2 in 5 Rheumatoid Arthritis Patients Sedentary” and “Too many rheumatoid arthritis patients inactive, study finds.” I am incredibly frustrated by both the design of the study and its attention from major media outlets, as well as the underlying assumptions it (and the reporters who have summarized it) make about individuals with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) / Rheumatoid Autoimmune Disease (RAD).
1. Research design issues:
First of all, the study involved only 176 adults and it followed their activity level for 7 days. So one week of data based on the experiences of 176 people is being used to extrapolate to the behaviors of the 1.3 million Americans who have RA/RAD. In addition, while the study asked participants to rate things like “lack of motivation” and “lack of strong beliefs” regarding exercise, it’s not clear whether they were experiencing pain at the time of the study. Though the abstract claims to have taken pain into consideration, no information is provided regarding self-reported pain levels or Disease Activity Score (DAS). We have no idea if these individuals had long-standing, well-controlled RA or if they were actively flaring during the (very brief) study.
2. Misplaced media attention:
Despite the small scale of this study, it has made headlines. Why? Likely because it is a relatively straightforward study that makes clear, easy-to-implement recommendations. (“These results support development of interventions that increase motivation for physical activity and that lead to stronger beliefs related to physical activity’s benefits should be considered in public health initiatives to reduce the prevalence of physical inactivity in adults with rheumatoid arthritis.”) Basically, physicians just need to convince RA-ers of the importance of exercise and they’ll do more. It makes a great sound bite and summarizes well, plus it plays into the ongoing obsession with the so-called “Obesity Epidemic” and the American tendency to place blame on individuals and their behavior for chronic health problems.
In the same issue of Arthritis Care & Research two articles on much larger, and to my mind more important, RA/RAD-related studies were published. Both studies came to the conclusion that physicians need to do a better job of assessing and treating their patients’ pain. One, “Pain as an important predictor of psychosocial health in patients with rheumatoid arthritis,” involved over 15,000 patients and showed a direct link between high pain levels and “psychosocial health variance” (depression, anxiety, negative outlook, etc). The other, “Determinants of discordance in patients’ and physicians’ assessment of rheumatoid arthritis disease activity,” had a cohort of over 7,000 patients. There was a significant disagreement between patients and their doctos in 36% of cases, primarily related to self-report of pain and fatigue. The authors conclude: “Sensitivity to the “disease experience” of patients, particularly pain and fatigue, is warranted for effective care of RA.” Why don’t studies like these appear in popular media?
3. Damaging assumptions: RA patients are lazy and don’t understand the importance of exercise
Based on my experience of talking with other autoimmune arthritis patients, many of us were extremely active in the months and years prior to diagnosis. We are now depressed and unhappy that we have neither the energy nor the strength to continue to exercise like we once did. As recently as a year and a half ago, I was running 10 miles a week and taking dance and yoga classes on top of that. In the past four months, I’ve been to the gym exactly twice. My current activity level rarely goes beyond walking and gentle stretching. How can it when I get winded and dizzy from walking up a flight of stairs? (And it has to be a good day for me to take the stairs at all!) The pain in my hands and wrists prevents me from doing many of the yoga poses I used to love, and the pain in my feet makes walking long distances painful and running or dancing nearly impossible. I have lost 15-20 pounds in the past year and continue to lose weight. I know, from Kelly’s posts at RA Warrior, as well as the conversations I read on Facebook and twitter, that many of us deal with loss of strength and cachexia (muscle wasting), or at the very least are prevented from exercising on a regular basis by the constant pain and fatigue caused by our disease. We understand the benefits of exercise. Perhaps if the studies that focused on managing pain got more attention, we would have more resources to manage our pain, and ultimately be more active. It cannot be the other way around.
When will doctors and researchers see us as individuals who want to be as healthy and pain-free as possible, rather than as Disease Activity Scores and swollen joint counts?
Physical pain does not simply resist language, but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.
—Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (4).
In many ways I’ve had a good week—I received great feedback on my research and teaching, spent quality time with friends, prepared for the holidays, reconnected with loved ones who live far away, attended an engagement party for a dear friend, and welcomed a new baby into my extended family. But I’ve also had one of the most painful weeks on record since last May (= the vasculitis debacle). And everything fades into a sort of dull background when my mind and body are so exhausted by managing the pain.
It’s been a week now since I took my first dose of injectable MTX (I took my second dose last night) and unfortunately, for the past week I’ve had an intense flare of joint pain, swelling, and general exhaustion (and possibly kidney involvement? 5+ lbs of water weight gain suggests “yes,” but it’s hard to tell). I don’t know if there’s a causal relationship between the MTX and the flare. I would like there to be, but I doubt it. Likely the flare is the result of the stress of the end of the semester and the beginning of the holidays combined with massive weather fluctuations and the generally unpredictable nature of flares.
I wish I had some easily controllable catalyst I could pin the cause of my flares to—sugar, caffeine, alcohol, lack of leafy greens, too much meat, nightshade vegetables, too little sleep, etc—but sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the way my illness works. (Plus, I’ve cut or severely limited most of the items on the preceding list anyway. I’m the healthiest sick persion I know. The baking I tried to do last week seems a much more plausible cause.) But I’m not feeling particularly hopeful that the injectable MTX is going to be any more helpful than the oral. On the other hand, being on the MTX this fall has made my seasonal allergies almost invisible, so at least it’s having something of an impact on my overvigilant immune system. But I’m so tired of waiting for something to control my arthritis!
I’ve had a lot of friends ask how I’m doing in the past few days, and it’s hard to know what to say. I usually go for my default response when someone is genuinely concerned (and not just offering a polite, social-lubricant “How have you been?”): “It’s been a rough week.” Often, they assume I’m talking about work, not about my health, and I usually let them persist in that assumption. Because once we get past those opening lines, I’m never sure where to go next. I know that we all struggle to describe the pain we experience—I see it come up over and over again on the blogs I read and with my friends and acquaintances on Twitter. We tell people we’re in pain, but they just don’t get it.
I even struggle to explain to my doctors the kind of pain I’m experiencing. I realize, in hindsight, that my explanation of “everything hurts,” while literally true, did nothing to assist in the diagnosis of a connective tissue disease. Doctors hear “everything hurts” and they think fibromyalgia (or CFIDS/ME, and/or depression). And while many of us have coincident fibro to go with our other rheumatic diagnoses, it’s my experience that a primary fibro diagnosis will prevent other doctors, even rheumatologists, from looking for additional causes for joint pain and fatigue. (Not that I’m bitter that it took anyone years to test my ANA and CRP. Nooo, not me.) So I’ve become very conscious of differentiating between “all over” diffuse pain and the distinct, precise pain of specific joint inflammation, even if those joints are seemingly “all over.” (Which they were this week. Even my jaw, which was a new one for me and oh my f—king goodness did it hurt.)
But what, exactly, does the joint pain feel like? When I try to describe it, I lapse into bad analogies and similes, the kind or purple prose I ask my students not to use in their essays:
I wish I could say that these are simply the creative inventions of a poet, which I suppose they are, since I am a writer of poetry, but they are also the closest I can come in language to describe the pain I experience on a regular basis.
And when the pain becomes more than I can bear, it’s like my brain places a sheer curtain or a piece of frosted glass between me and my body— really between me and all my perceptions of the world. The pain becomes more diffuse and manageable, but all sensation and thought becomes cloudy, dampened, and difficult to sustain. Periodically the specific pain of individual joints breaks through, and I become both distracted and distraught. After several days (or weeks) of this, I’m an emotional wreck. So much of my energy is expended trying to manage and ignore the pain that I cannot focus on anything else, and little annoyances become insurmountable obstacles. Painkillers dull but do not silence the pain and bring their own set of annoyances and side effects.
How do you describe the pain of your arthritis or chronic illness? Do you even try?
9 January 2012: This blog post has been included in RA Warrior’s blog carnival on pain scales. While my entry is a bit on the irreverent side, check out some of the other entries for more thoughtful perspectives on tracking, quantifying, and communicating pain. Thanks for including my post Kelly!
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how easy it is for a continuous level of pain to become the “new normal”— like when your pain is at a “5” consistently, that becomes your baseline and you forget what a “0” or a “1” felt like before you were in pain all the time.
For the last few years, my feet have been the bellwether of my arthritis. When I’m feeling good, my feet feel pretty good. When a flare is bearing down on me, my feet are the first to respond. Last week, I tried (and failed) to put on a cute pair of sandals to go out and realized I’d gone a month without wearing heels.
Since the standard pain chart is woefully inadequate (as outlined hilariously over at Hyperbole and a Half), I decided to make one of my own: a shoe shorthand for my pain levels. Note that these are shoes for my professional life, not necessarily what I’d be wearing if my day involved reading, writing, and picking up some groceries (that’s what slipper socks and Uggs are for, right?). So if you catch me at work in a pair of sneakers, it might not be the best time to ask for that extra favor…
Pain Level: 0
Pain? What Pain? I feel awesome today!
Pain Level: 4
You’ve got to be kidding me if you think I’m putting these swollen toes into a pair of heels.
Pain Level: 8
Don’t even ask, or I might have to tell you about how it feels like someone
has shattered all the bones in my feet with a hammer. Literally.