The eyes of the monster – part 2

Well, I went to see the eye surgeon.

The upshot of my meeting was that I’m not going to have an operation to correct my doublevision. I decided that it wasn’t worth it because I have what he termed a “complex squint” and any correction to my doublevision to the left would be offset by new problems to the right. The surgeon said he could perform the operation if I wanted it and give me single vision looking straight ahead but he couldn’t cure me.

I decided that I would rather stick with what I’m used to and avoid an unpleasant operation with its uncertain aftermath.

There is, of course, the consideration that my eye movements could be affected again by a future relapse and undo everything the surgeon did.

At least I can stare out the monster with my prism lenses. They’re not perfect, but they iron out my straight-ahead vision when I need them to. They have their drawbacks in that they’re not very good with computer screens as they blur the text and they’re not very good with bright light (direct sun or car headlights) as they tend to splinter any brightness into vertical lines.

The extent of my problems as they stand is as follows: I see double from the centre (I hold my head slightly off kilter to make up for this, apparently) and to the left. This gets worse as I look further to the left and I get a little nystagmus (flickering eyes) to the extreme left.

Rather than screw up one eye, I either turn my head or trust the image from my right eye and mentally switch off my left eye image when I look left, which is odd because my left eye is a little bit sharper than my right one..

I see single, slightly off centre to the right and then it doesn’t take long before I get a textbook case of very noticeable nystagmus (surgeon to student yesterday: “take a look and note that for your finals”) coupled with not so extreme doublevision to the extreme right.

When my eyes look up and down in the single vision field, they’re fine and when I look left and right, my eyes travel at slightly different speeds – there’s a little bit of lag in my left eye.

If the truth be known, I have to say the meeting answered a lot of questions and I’m relieved I don’t have to go through all that.

“Sorry, there’s nothing we can do”

There is a stand up routine by Sean Lock where he recounts being told off for swearing by belligerent airport staff. His exasperated reply finishes with “This is exactly the sort of occasion swearing was f***ing invented for!”

Excuse me a moment…

a$%e!…  &u$%&!!…  (%d%*!!! %^&*!!…   f&*^:~!!…  ~*()&*&^$%$”!!!!!!

There – out of my system…

No, wait, hang on…

%&^*£$^%$!!

There. Feel a bit better, now.

I went to see an orthoptist about my doublevision, nystagmus, intranuclear opthalmoplegia and oscillopsia the other day.

I spent about an hour undergoing various tests. I followed a torch with my eyes. I had various lenses passed in front of each of my eyes and I had to say when the image became double and single. I pointed at dots with a long stick (and missed). I looked at various patterns to find the hidden 3D shape and of course I read the all too familiar eye chart.

Things I didn’t know before: I also have doublevision looking up to the right and my left eye doesn’t pull in towards the nose as much as it should do.

I have been looking forward to my doublevision being ‘sorted’ for a year and a half. As I mentioned in my last post, this is the one constant symptom, the one that doesn’t fade away and then come crashing back. The symptom that is constantly breathing down my shoulder reminding me I have MS and it is the symptom that spurred me on into visiting the GP in the first place.

It is also (as I screw up one eye to look at you) a symptom that makes me feel dizzy, tires me out, drags me down and makes me look like a weirdo. I was convinced that the magical people in the eye department of my local hospital would be able to build me prism lensed spectacles to straighten things out for me. Not to wear all the time, you understand, just when I’m at work, or in a meeting, or driving my car, or walking along the street. I’m not asking for much really. Just some semblance of normality.

“Sorry, there’s nothing we can do…”

Apparently, they can’t (or won’t) correct doublevision unless it occurs in the primary position (straight ahead). Also, my eyesight is pretty good – I can read most of the bottom line on the eye chart and if I did have glasses, they would have to be plain glass and the prism lens would blur things a bit for me.

So there I was watching the orthoptist as he moved his head left and right to demonstrate how you look left and right.

Yes, I should be grateful for the fact that I can see, and yes, I should be grateful for the fact that I can see pretty well and yes, it could be a whole lot worse – a hell of a lot worse. I could have been maimed in an accident, I know. But days like this remind me that MS is a complete an utter uncurable bastard. Things will never be the same. I will never be able to look around with my eyes travelling the same speed again. I will never be able to look left and see a single image. I will never be able to look right and keep my eyes perfectly still. I will never be able to read a book without it tiring me out. Things will never be how they used to be.

So when someone tells you there is nothing they can do, that little ember of hope at the back of the hearth that you thought might be coaxed back to life with some newspaper and a bit of careful blowing, is snuffed out with a gallon of water.

And what makes it all so much worse is that I will probably look back on this day and think how lucky I was back then compared to how I am ‘now’.

Doublevision is one of those symptoms that can come and go in Relapsing Remitting MS, but I’m pretty sure that after a year and a half we’re not just talking about demyelination on the nerve controlling eye movement. I think there’s been some permanent damage.

I have an appointment with an opthalmologist in a couple of weeks and they want to look at the back of my eyes and document the “state of things” I guess. They will probably also want to patronise me by telling me stuff I already know about nerve damage and so on.

So, having taken the knock and bottling up all the crestfallen feelings I’m back to the bustle of the hospital lobby. Past the people in Costa coffee. Skirting the guy with the mop and the couple with the walking frames. Through the automatic doors, past the A & E entrance, then the maternity wing with a handful of expectant mothers in dressing gowns, fags in hands.

Back to the car…

Negotiating the one-way system through the car parks…

Waiting for the ambulance to go past…

out onto the main road…

Whack the stereo on full blast to take my mind off things as I head back to town…

The music starts: “There’s no escaping from / the man it seems that I’ve become…” *

…The grief.

* test your music trivia – identify the track and you may or (more likely) may not win a prize (not decided yet, but nothing big and nothing amazing).

MS Explained

Just a note to say that the MS Trust (UK) have updated their marvellous booklet MS Explained.

This is a little bit more involved than some of the literature out there. While not for everyone, it explains the neurology and immunology aspects of MS very well in layman’s terms. I would heartily recommend this publication to the newly diagnosed. In the last year and a bit, I have read up on MS from various sources, gorging on the information within. I am pleased to report that the MS Trust publication had a lot to teach me. I know which parts of the brain have been affected causing my diplopia and nystagmus, for instance.

If it’s a more general leaflet for friends and colleagues you’re after I would recommend the MS Society’s “What is MS?

If you live in the UK, the MS Trust can send you a copy of MS Explained for nothing. You can also download it for free wherever you are (along with numerous other publications), just click on the link below.

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.

My MS History – Part Six

After one more session of double-checking with the consultant where he had yet another student in tow – it seemed I was becoming a textbook example of nystagmus – it became apparent that the steroids really hadn’t done their job. So to suppress my existing symptoms I was prescribed Gabapentin.

I had been given details of Disease Modifying Drugs (DMDs) prior to this meeting and using the MS Decisions website, made my choice which I was going to spend the foreseeable future taking…

… and then I made it again.

Rebif it was – sub-cutaneous injections three times a week but with the downer that it had to be kept in the fridge.

Eventually a large box with all the gubbins turned up along with my monthly courier. By all the gubbins, I mean travel cool-bags (one large, one small), rebijector (injection pen), supporting literature, diary, “passports,” sharps bin, injection site cushion (that I could heat or freeze), and the medication itself.

Two weeks at 8mg and two weeks at 22mg, and then I could expect a delivery of the 44mg syringes.

I have been relatively side-effect free, but I did get a couple of instances of flu-like side-effects with Rebif.

The worst day of side effects happened when I had the mother of all hot flushes. One January morning at 6am, I stepped out to my car in just a summer dressing gown, surprised that it was quite mild, only for it to be minus seven when I checked my in-car thermometer later.

The Gabapentin, meanwhile, had turned me into a zombie. Not only that, but a zombie who occasionally had disturbing hallucinations.

Being a vegetarian and not at all into human flesh eating, I decided to ditch these drugs, for the good of my (and everyone else’s) sanity. I had “accidentally” forgotten to take them for a number of days, and while my hands started to feel as though they were holding a cactus again and my legs started feeling like they were made of lead, I felt more mentally alert and alive. I hadn’t even reached the full dosage.

In fairness to gabapentin, I have since found out that I work with someone with on a much higher dose than I was ever going to take, who said that they have no side-effects at all with it.

I went to see my GP and while he was thumbing through his British National Formulary for a suitable alternative, I told him that I wanted to give Amitriptyline a go. He agreed and I have been on these ever since with no side-effects. They make me a little drowsy late on, but that sends me to sleep nicely. They also help with the leg pain and the tingling.

Reading and MS

I used to read a book a week. Every lunchtime, I’d grab some fresh air and sit by the canal with the latest piece of weirdness that I’d picked up at Waterstones. Every evening I’d lounge with my face buried between the pages while my wife sat next to me watching telly.

That all disintegrated five years ago at the same time as my first major MS relapse. I had a stressful time of it, working in a new job that I hated and a newborn baby waiting for me at home. The stress probably triggered the relapse but I didn’t really have the time to read anything in the evening, anyway.

These days, I really like the idea of reading but find that I simply can’t. My MS makes it difficult to concentrate when I get tired and at the end of a day spent in front of a computer screen, my eyes will jump around. Any attempt to read more than the few pages I read to my daughter before bedtime requires great effort and sends me to sleep and the very prospect of reading makes me feel tired.

I have tended to substitute for it by immersing myself in films instead.

I am wondering if graphic novels might be a way of re-building my reading stamina. If I only have to read dialogue and the odd caption, it may take a lot of the fatigue out of reading and restore the enjoyment of a good book. It is something I intend to explore.

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.