Alcohol

It has been amended since, but I once laughed at a section in the MS Society publication “What is MS?” which described potential problems when drinking alcohol.*

The problems highlighted included balance, bladder control, slurred speech and double-vision.

“So how do I know when I’m getting drunk then?” I thought.

Last week I had a few pints of lager at a wedding reception. I see two objects when my eyes look left anyway, but I found it difficult to straighten my vision out coming back to centre.

I guess this contributed to my drunken state, because it made everything swim earlier than it was meant to. A most unpleasant sensation and one that made me feel a bit maudlin for a while.

The boundary between sober and drunk is now very (‘scuse the pun..) blurred.

* The publication has since been amended to say that MS symptoms can become more acute when drunk.

How deep is remission?

Someone once said to me “MS is a companion, but not a friend.”

These words ring true. I have been in remission for a while now, but I still haven’t shaken most of the symptoms. The dizziness and fatigue have been pushed into the background but they grumble along, just to let me know they are still lurking away.

The tingling fingers and leg pain are still there as well, but there will be a gap of five minutes or so every now and then when my hands feel “normal”, and the crushing and squeezing in my feet and calves won’t start until later in the evening.

The double-vision is ever-present and consistent though, so it is this that I use, just to pinch myself that this is really happening to me. Let’s just look left for a second, I tell myself… yes, two plant-pots instead of one.

Being told you have MS is so surreal that when symptoms are on a back burner and I feel good about myself, I feel the need for a reality check.

You may ask why. Why not just enjoy the moment? I think the answer is that if all my symptoms disappeared completely, I would forever be paranoid that there was a big attack just around the corner, waiting to take me by surprise. Checking that everything is still going wrong in it’s usual way, ensures that I get some constancy and I have something that I have the illusion of keeping in check.

Then of course, there are the times when I forget to take my tablets for a few days and it feels like I’m holding a cactus anyway.

This weekend was a mad one: jobs to do, daughters to amuse etc. On top of all this the weather was warm and muggy and I came down with a head cold which screwed me up for long stretches of the day. There were a couple of times when I simply couldn’t stand up. And as I type this, I am battling with drooping eyelids and a brain determined to shut itself down.

I guess there is no easy way to guage where remission begins and relapse ends as everything is there still – making it’s presence felt. The terrorist cell that operates in my central nervous system is currently doing a woollens wash, with their balaclavas probably just starting the spin cycle.

The next move they make could be tomorrow or it could be in twenty years time.

Whenever it happens, I like to think that I will be ready psychologically.

One year on …

Today is the first anniversary of my diagnosis (see MS History – part two).

Health professional bodycount so far.

Starting with the first GP visit last year, the bodycount is as follows

  • GPs 4
  • Practice Nurses 2
  • MS nurse 1
  • Ward nurse 1
  • Occupational Health nurse 1
  • Phlebotomists 6 (estimate)
  • Physiotherapists 1
  • Neurologists 5
  • Neuro-psychologists 2
  • Radiologists 4

If you consider the medication as well, I have probably cost the NHS more money over the last year than some of it’s employees.

Symptom recap:

Current symptoms:

  • mild optic neuritis (since Jan ’09)
  • doublevision / nystagmus / intra-nuclear opthalmoplegia / oscillopsia
  • fatigue
  • tingling / pins and needles
  • neuropathic pain in legs

Symtoms that have cleared up for now:

  • L’Hermitte’s sign
  • vertigo
  • muscle weakness
  • involuntary muscle movement

Of the current symptoms, the fatigue and optic neuritis aren’t quite as acute as they were at first onset, so I feel much better, relatively, than I did last year. I think it is important to stress that I still have bad days, though (I nearly fell asleep in a meeting yesterday). Things are also helped by friendlier medication.

Yearly neurologist meeting – 2009

Yesterday, I saw my neurologist’s registrar – Dr Somebodyorother plus one student.

I had to recap my entire MS history from Day 1 again. I always find it difficult to remember the relapses prior to diagnosis as I didn’t recognise them for what they were at the time.

I did my usual set of tests. I had my reflexes tested, walk/limped from one line of old red tape stuck on the floor to another one and back while he timed me on his iphone, I walked an imaginary tightrope heel to toe, I read the eye chart, I resisted the pulling and pushing of my arms and legs, I had my eyes examined and I watched his finger move from left to right…

…my eyes were flickering…

“Do you want to come and have a look at this?” as he singled out my nystagmus to his student.

…and back again as his finger became two fingers as if he was making bunny ears behind an invisible head.

Back in the consultation room, my regular uber-neurologist breezed in with a student in tow. He flashed me a grin and told me how well I looked (see pet peeves part one) and leant against a bank of xray lightboxes with chin in hand as the registrar recounted his findings. At the mention of nystagmus, he lurched himself upright and held his biro vertically in front of my nose. I dutifully followed the pen, demonstrating my wonky eyes to the second student.

Excuse me while I digress – I have no idea if my nystagmus is a particularly textbook example or whether nystagmus cases are hard to find, but it is always singled out to the accompanying student. So if you are reading this blog and you are a neurology student (or otherwise), it will be quite easy for me to post a film of my oscillating eyes on this blog. If you would like me to do so leave a message in the comments and I will be happy to oblige.

He also noted my intranuclear opthalmoplegia, which his registrar had missed (my left eye moves a bit slower than my right).

Anyway, summarising the meeting:

  • I have only had one minor relapse in the last year, so the medication (Rebif) is working and I can continue with it.
  • An appointment is to be made at my local hospital, so they can try me with prismatic lensed spectacles that may correct my doublevision (no obligation to take them).
  • I have regained my balance. Good old self-healing magical brain. Standing up straight with my eyes closed, I don’t keel over and I can walk heel-to-toe across a room neither of which I could do a year ago.
  • I need an extra blood test to see how my system is coping with the Beta Interferon

“You’re doing very well” grinned my neurologist (cheerfully disregarding my mentioning pain and fatigue) before fielding a couple of my questions, shaking my hand and breezing out again.

So there you have it.

All being well, I won’t see him for another year.

In a rare moment of symmetry, my car passed it’s MOT a day later only needing a headlight adjusting.

Psycho swat team

I caught something on TV the other night about someone who had a minor stroke while on holiday in the UK. As a result, he could no longer read when he woke up. He knew the individual letters on his hotel shampoo bottles, but couldn’t string them together into words. Even though they were written in English, he was convinced they were written in a foreign language.

While this in itself is odd, the thing that struck me was that he informed his wife he couldn’t read, She didn’t believe him and he put it to one side mentally. He then just carried on as normal until later when he had to read something else and it all came back to him.

This reminds me of the time I first noticed my doublevision. I can’t put an exact date on when it happened, other than it was March/April 2008 and I was at work when I noticed it. I found it odd and I tried to put it right by trying to un-cross my eyes. When I found that I couldn’t, I just carried on doing what I was doing, double-checking it was still there every now and then. I think I thought “It’ll go…” until a few days later when it obviously wasn’t going to go. Nearly a year later it’s still there.

I wonder if the magical brain somehow cushions the shock caused by the injury by despatching some sort of psychological swat team – convincing the mind that the doublevision or inability to read is a normal thing and to carry on as normal. And I wonder if the man with a stroke would have noticed his inability to read if he had been at home instead of on holiday. I wonder if he would have carried on as normal for days, avoiding books or newspapers before it started to bother him.

Life with MS – Part One – Symptoms

I don’t want to come over all “woe is me” because there are plenty of people out there on the internet trying to out-do each other with their bad symptoms and there are many others with MS who have it much worse than I do (my old neighbour who also has MS, doesn’t recognise me now when I see her).

I thought for the purposes of this blog that it might be useful to document some of the symptoms I have experienced both now and in the past to give readers some idea of what it is like to have MS. Please note: this list does not include the marvellous array of drug side-effects. More on those later.

Symptoms happening now:

Doublevision (since March 2008)
when I look left I see two of everything side by side. Simple as that. The more I look left, the bigger the displacement between images. Makes crossing the road and recognising people in the street difficult. Constantly closing one eye takes it’s toll too, in terms of fatigue and people thinking you are crazy.

Nystagmus (since summer 2008)
When I look right, I get nystagmus. My eyes flicker and won’t keep still. It gets worse if I’m tired or have done some exercise and I can sometimes get jumpy eyes looking straight ahead. It makes reading and watching telly very tiring and I don’t read as much these days.

Intranuclear Opthalmoplegia (since March 2008)
Looking left to right or right to left my eyes travel at slightly different speeds so it takes time for the two images to match up when looking right. Things can look a bit trippy when glancing round all over the place.

Oscillopsia (since 2007 or earlier)
my vision jumps around all over the place if I am running or walking strenuously – a bit like running with a video camera.

Pins and needles (intermittent until March 2008 and constant since then)
I get tingling sensations in my fingertips constantly. Sometimes it subsides to a faint tingle. Once or twice I have had a window of half an hour or so when they have disappeared completely (the drugs working). Mostly I get the electric tingling sensation in my fingers only, but it can spread to my hands and even my forearms. I also get these sensations in my feet, particularly my right foot. My right leg feels fuzzy for most of the time and walking can be troublesome on a bad day. I have numb patches on my right foot. This all gets worse if hot or tired. Also according to a 2004 diary entry – I had a week where half my head had pins and needles.

Bladder problems (not sure since when)
I sometimes find it hard to go. I don’t always fully empty my bladder – I simply can’t – and I can need to go to the loo several times during the night giving me a disturbed night’s sleep.

Cognitive Problems (not sure since when)
I have difficulty with concentration and short term memory – a particular problem with routine tasks, such as making payments to the child-minder, credit cards etc. My mind can wander in the middle of conversations as well and I lose the thread of…. erm… …anyway I have an old pre-diagnosis diary entry where I thought my memory and concentration had improved since taking Omega 3 tablets, but I was probably documenting a remission period.

Pain (not sure since when)
Apart from the pins and needles, I get sharp shooting pains from my finger tips occasionally. The worst pain I get is a weird cramping sensation in my legs which feels like insects (ants in my imagination) moving around under the skin. This is unbelievably uncomfortable and when it happens I can’t keep still and I can’t relax. This happens almost daily and can start as early as mid-day.

Fatigue (since March 2008, but also during hot days in 2007)
Like someone has taken my battery out. I had this at work once and found my mind blank as if I was sleeping with my eyes open. It happens intermittently and when it does I might as well be made of concrete. I will just want to sleeeep.

Other symptoms:

Stiffness / Muscle spasm
(Spring 2008)
I had a problem with this in the spring of 2008. I was an old man for three days – stiff as a board. I found it very difficult to move. It coincided with having hives – I think I had an allergy to some washing powder which brought this on. I also had involuntary movement of my calf muscles in March 2008 – in a relaxed state they were moving and twitching all over the place.

Optic neuritis (March/April 2004)
Flickering lights in my vision. Some pain in my eyes when looking round. Flashes of milky white light in my vision when looking round in the dark.

Headaches (July 2004)
I reported in my diary of the time that I had a headache that had lasted for four weeks. Of course, I could have had any number of MS induced headaches, but when one lasts for four weeks, it’s a dead cert.

L’hermitte’s sign (March 2008 to Autumn 2008)
Placing my chin on my chest created an electric shock sensation travelling down my back and into my thighs, or, on a good day, like someone pulling a tickly, twiggy branch up my back. I think drug therapy may have cleared this one up for now.

Vertigo (2004 to 2008)
An intermittent symptom – it comes and goes. I felt a mild wave of giddiness the other day when I was bending down for something, but at it’s worst vertigo can make the whole world spin and induce a feeling of seasickness. Even turning over in bed can make me lose my balance completely and I have to sit up to regain my bearings. In 2004 and 2007, this was one of the major symptoms I had to deal with and I spent a night of hell intermittently spinning and vomiting in 2007. I also used to walk into the walls along the long corridors at work. It’s very unpleasant – I would rather have doublevision over this any day.

Ultra-sensitivity (pre-2007 to 2008)
I have patches of skin that can be ultra-sensitive and uncomfortably ticklish.

So there you go. Quite a wide range of stuff, sensory and visual mainly.

I guess since diagnosis I am more aware of everything that is going on, so I may have missed out a whole heap of weirdness that has come and gone over the last few years. Now I am on beta interferon, the length of time between relapses should lengthen, but I should be able to recognise when one starts when new symptoms start appearing or old ones start re-appearing and I will document it here.

My MS History – Part One

Once somebody tells you, you have MS, you start to put a jigsaw together. You wonder whether that strange tingling sensation you had in your right arm last year had something to do with it, or in my case the vertigo diagnosis from the previous year and the little numb patch between my big toe on my right foot and the others.

It all happened at roughly the same time, but seemingly by stealth as I can’t put an exact time or even a date on it. My old office at work used to look out onto the rolling Derbyshire scenery. In the distance there was a radio mast on top of one of the hills. I remember looking up at that radio mast and hilltop one morning to see two radio masts and hilltops, but weirdly, only when I looked left. Also, when I hammered away at my computer keyboard, I noticed that my fingers felt a bit tingly. ‘RSI?’ I wondered.

I had recently had delivery of a new computer and I had shifted my workspace around and moved my desk from one side of the office to the other. When this sort of thing happens, my employer automatically sends a health and safety person round to assess how you are sitting, whether the new screen you have is causing any eye problems (“Yeah, well I do have this problem with doublevision”), or whether your seat is suitable (“Funny you should say that, but I get this strange electrical tingling sensation down my back and into my thighs when I put my chin to my chest”). The doublevision I put down to eye strain as I had other unexplained problems with my eyes a few years before (this particular jigsaw piece hadn’t dropped into it’s slot at this point).

The health and safety guy, barely into his twenties, was non-plussed. “Maybe ask your GP,” was his suggestion.

“Yeah… maybe I will”

I recounted my recent problems to my brother shortly afterwards at the football. “If you were a TV, I’d take you back to the shop” was his comment. I could see his logic, and I needed to see my GP about something minor anyway – I needed a wart removing from my lip – I could always mention this weird stuff at the end as an aside.

I saw a locum GP. It turned out that the wart was the least of his concerns. He did various tests. I had my reflexes tested, I watched his finger move left to right, I stood on one leg, I touched my nose then his moving finger then my nose and so on. He booked me in for an emergency CT scan at the hospital in the city. I should get an appointment within the fortnight, he said.

He thought everything I was experiencing was connected somehow, but wouldn’t be drawn on what it might be apart from that it could be something pressing on my spinal cord.

“Basically, where my expertise ends, someone else’s begins…” were his words, “take it easy… don’t do anything strenuous… no heavy lifting… look after yourself… be selfish… let others take the strain for a while.”

A GP has never said anything like this to me before. My previous visits had always been met with a “don’t worry about it, it’ll go away” air about them.

I thought of the heavy suitcase that I had to load and lift into the car, ready for our family holiday in a couple of day’s time. “I’m going on holiday at the weekend.” I explained.

“Where are you going?”

“Cornwall.”

“That’s good. They have hospitals down there.”

“You’ve got me worried now,” I laughed . . . no flicker of a smile on his face.

As I left the surgery, I felt the weirdest sensation. Something other-worldly, like I had been given a serious secret assignment.

I had a door with what could be a monster lurking behind it. All I had to do was find the key.