Let’s get physio.

Here’s a video showing a typical minute in the life of my calf muscles.

Yesterday I added to my Panini sticker book of health professionals by seeing a neurophysiotherapist for the first time. It was mainly about leg pain and my twitchy calves, but also about my general clumsiness, fatigue and my general state of affairs.

My fasciculating legs are a remnant, along with my doublevision, of my last BIG relapse in 2008. While other symptoms have fallen by the wayside or make occasional quick unannounced visits like an unwelcome relative (I’m talking about you, vertigo), my painful legs have been a problem for the last decade. I’m not saying the twitches are painful in themselves, but there’s a correlation: the more painful my legs are, the twitchier they’ll be.

I reckon seeing a physio is one of the best healthcare experiences you can have, as it’s pretty hands-on. It’s just nice to hold someone’s hand, even if they are jerking your arm around. I had my balance, my range of movement, my reflexes, and what sensations I was (or wasn’t) feeling assessed. Most importantly, I got to talk everything out, relaying everything I’ve been through from day one, to someone who genuinely listened.

It also helped me get my head round things. I’ve been using the word ‘pain’ as a box ticking exercise; it’s a convenient way to describe an unpleasant sensation, but it’s not pain in a conventional sense. If it was the pain of a headache, burn, tooth or even a bad back, I could rationalise it, no matter how intolerable – my pain threshold is pretty high (ask my dentist).

This is the pain of extreme discomfort; the pain of an itch you can’t scratch or the ache of an amputee’s phantom limb. At its worst, it’s torture.

I was asked to describe the way my legs feel, and after thinking for a while, I said they feel charged; they have an electricity about them. I’m pretty sure if I listened carefully enough I’d hear the crackle of static or the hum of an overhead power-line. If they wake me up in the night, the charge builds up over a period of about 20 or 30 seconds before discharging in a spasm. Only one leg at a time will be a problem. If I gently touch the sole of my foot or my calf muscle when they’re at their most sensitive, they’ll recoil in a hyper-reflexive instant.

Again, I thank my lucky stars for MS nurses because it’s only this year when I mentioned my legs in one of my nurse appointments that anyone has taken them seriously. Even my neurologist has dismissed them in the past as a twitch that everyone gets (really?) just like a twitching eyelid.

At least now I can take baclofen a couple of hours before I go to sleep and combine these with stretches and exercises to ease my way into the land of nod. I also have a series of follow up appointments with the physio to look forward to.

Post script:

After writing the above, a mildly arthritic big toe joint has decided to flare up. This is causing me no end of agony from the attached leg alone. When I saw the physio, it was after a fairly comfortable morning of working from home, so typically, I couldn’t demonstrate the worst case scenario. Today’s a different matter, it’s like my whole leg from the knee down is on fire. My reflexes are kicking in every time my foot touches something, making it pretty hard to walk. I’ve taken my baclofen early, and I’m taking ordinary painkillers for the toe, so fingers crossed I’ll get some sleep, but I’m not holding out too much hope.

The sting

Well, I’ve been taking Copaxone (Glatiramer Acetate) for about a week now. I administered my first injection under the gaze of my wonderful MS nurse last Monday.

When I was on Rebif I didn’t really inject into my arm or leg, favouring the fattier parts of my anatomy. It has been my arse and my belly that have borne the brunt over the years, frankly, and as such, I am only now, months later, starting to lose the red patches below my navel.

Injecting with Copaxone however is a more serious prospect in terms of injection site reactions. You really do need to set up a rota of sites to pierce as sustained injecting into one area can cause the destruction of local tissue – quoting my newly copaxone-free friend: “You don’t really think about your ass till it’s kinda disappeared.”

It’s particularly important as my injections are now part of a daily regime rather than being a three-times-a-week occurence.

The thing they don’t tell you is how much it HURTS…

“Yeah, it’s like a bee sting,” smiled my nurse, breezily. “I thought I’d tell you AFTER you’d injected.”

Bloody hell!

I felt like my daughters might have felt after they’d walked a mile, on a promise, to the local ice cream factory and found the little hatch had shut early.

It took about an hour for me to be able to bend my arm again.

I asked my friend if the pain got better over time. “Maybe a little,” she lied.

To be fair, the arm is the worst. I can shrug off the pain in all the other areas, but with the arms, I can’t even shrug. It’s like those “dead-arms” we used to administer to each other as an endurance style contest at secondary school… bruised and pummelled limbs hanging weakly at our sides to the puzzlement of our teachers as we entered each lesson.

The plus side is that a daily injection is easier to remember than a Monday, Wednesday, Friday injection. Particularly if you have trouble remembering what day of the week it is or how old you are, like I do.

A tip I learnt off YouTube is to take one of those Sharpie pens and write the days of the week and the injection site on each of the packets. So it might say “Monday left bum,” “Tuesday left leg,” “Wednesday right leg” etc. I also now know a new spot on my legs as well (top rather than side) so that will break things up rather nicely.

Today is “Tuesday left arm” though, so not looking forward to that, particularly as yesterday it was “Monday right arm.” I’m gonna have to rethink my rota, I reckon.

Anyway, in six months time I will have built up enough Copaxone in my system for it to start properly working. It’s the best option for me right now. I’ll keep my ears to the ground with any new developments in disease modifying treatments, and I can always ditch and switch if anything better becomes available.

Back to Blighty blues

I’m just back in the UK after a fabulous trip to Australia and Singapore.

I don’t normally do this, but while I was away, I re-evaluated things a little. What I should be doing to make myself happier, more comfortable and healthier.

The thing about Australia is that there are so many similarities to home – the food is similar, they drive on the left, they seem to have a similar dry sense of humour – that the differences really stand out. Here are a few things I noticed:

  • Jogging is a big deal – I counted 100 joggers on one stretch of path within a couple of minutes from my Brisbane hotel window one morning, and everywhere we went, I’d see people in lycra shorts, tracksuit tops etc just going about their business.
  • Families and social life are a big deal. Parks, green spaces, football stadiums, museums – they all have little huts with barbecue equipment underneath for anyone to roll up and insert a coin or raised wooden picnic platforms.
  • Friendliness – I was only there for a couple of weeks, but they couldn’t have been more accommodating. Even the supermarket shelf stackers were matey when pointing out the milk aisle.

Arriving back to the 70s monstrosity of Manchester Airport, the racist cab driver and people with a weary chip on their shoulder, accentuated things even more and brought me back to Blighty with a bump.

It might just be my holiday state of mind and the places we stayed, though, because I’m sure that Australians can be as grumpy, un-fit and unhappy as the best (worst?) of us. With the wide-open spaces and the better weather, though, it certainly seemed that the quality of life down under outstripped anything we enjoy.

It also probably helped, that I’d deliberately left my medication at home.

After popping that first injection when I got back, I felt a familiar weariness in my limbs that wasn’t anything to do with jet lag. My clay legs couldn’t bear to climb the stairs any more times than they had to and the energy I’d had exploring the streets of Singapore had been sapped. A day or so later I had my first big argument with a misbehaving daughter. The idea that I might get up early and start a pre-breakfast jogging routine seemed more and more unlikely.

It’s been a few days since I got back, now. I wisely took a few days off work to get over jet lag and this has been achieved more or less. But the idea that a week ago I was walking through a humid Singapore with a backpack creating a sweaty square on my t-shirt and a camera that immediately fogged up as soon as we’d leave anywhere air-conditioned, seems almost unbelievable. Particularly when you consider that I was striding through the streets with the rest of the family lagging behind and begging me for a rest.

So what can I do back home?

The biggest issues for me that I can do something about, MS-wise, are fatigue and the pain due to muscle spasms in my legs and feet. Of course, the pain feeds the fatigue and most certainly, vice versa.

I don’t take any pain medication as everything I’ve tried so far (gabapentin and amitriptyline) has given me unwanted side effects ranging from more fatigue to hallucinations. I met my wonderful MS nurse before I went away and she suggested that I give pregabalin a try, so I may do that. I guess it works on the same centres of the brain that gabapentin does though (?) so that’s something to bear in mind. She also mentioned a muscle relaxant, but that might be a bit full-on at the moment and could be a last resort.

The fatigue could be combatted by changing from beta interferon to the relatively symptom-free copaxone with the added complication of daily injections (which, perversely, might be easier to remember).

More importantly, a major contributing factor to both of these symptoms is the fact that I spend seven and a half hours of the day sitting at a computer. I don’t want to keep taking sick leave, but I easily could, I feel dreadful at the end of each working day and even worse by the end of the week.

It’s taken a long time to consider my options, and I’ve spent more than a year weighing this up as it’ll inevitably lead to a drop in wages, but I’ve requested a reduction in work hours to a four day week spread over five days. This would effectively give me a six hour working day. When you consider that I work flexible work hours anyway, this would be a dream come true, give me some much needed space and improve the quality of my life no end.

It would give me the space I need to move at a less hectic pace, to drop the kids or pick them up at school without worrying about making up the hours at work. I would be a less grumpy dad in the evenings and I’d have more time to take up some gentle exercise. I could even water my tomatoes and weed my allotment plot before heading to work in the morning. When I think of the possibilities, the image I have is suffused in a golden glow… an ideal world.

I have requested this as a necessary adjustment to my working life under the Equalities Act. I work in a large public sector organisation and everything they have done regarding my MS to date has been exemplary. I even have paid time off to attend meetings of our disabled workers group if I want to (I don’t, but that’s another story).

I made my request two months ago to the day and apart from an occupational health appointment before my holiday, I’ve heard nothing so far. No letter from human resources, no email in the inbox.

It’s a bit disappointing, but I don’t work for the DVLA, so I expect I’ll get results when I chase it up. I’ll look forward to it opening a new chapter in my life. I’ll keep you all posted.

Mild relapse?

I have been on beta interferon (Rebif) for nearly two years now and in that time I haven’t had a relapse.

Or have I?

Beta interferon is supposed to reduce the likelihood of having a relapse and minimise the effects if you do get one. Back in January 2009, when I came off gabapentin, I experienced a temporary worsening of symptoms such as fatigue, pain, heavy legs and one instance of flashy lights in front of my eyes. Was it a minor relapse as the neurologist thought? Was it the side-effects of coming off the gabapentin? Or was it the underfoot rumbles of the MS volcano?

I don’t know. I suspect all three depending on when you ask me.

I have a similar thing going on at the moment. In addition to the usual symptoms, I have had a couple of weeks where I have had a worsening of pain in my arms especially, mild spasticity in my left arm and both feet, hands that feel as if they are gently transporting a cactus as opposed to the usual background tingle, heavy legs again, fatigue, mild vertigo, uncontrolled movements in my calf muscles and last night, definite phosphenes in my right field of vision as I moved my eyes around.

So is it the hot weather?

Is it the MS Monster rolling over in it’s sleep?

Or is it a mild relapse?

I’m not inclined to bother anybody about it until my next yearly meet up with the neuro. My neuro is “running late” this year, apparently. Running late in the sense of he can’t see me in June as would normally happen, but will be able to when his appointments begin again in August, and the 115 people in front of me in the queue have been seen first.

In the meantime, I have restarted taking the amitriptyline.

Dental mentalism

I went to the dentists yesterday.

I love the dentists.

I am seen by student dentists in their final year at university and because of this, I a) get free treatment and b) get some of the most careful attentive care possible. Everything is double-checked by a doctor from the university dental school and ninety-nine times out of a hundred they agree with the opinions of their students.

Over the last year and a bit, I have been seen by five student dentists, *ahem!* cutting their teeth in the real world (sorry). Apparently my gnashers are beautifully clean, and amazingly, it’s rare for them to treat someone with a full set of their own 32 adult teeth. I also like to think I’m a good patient, so we get along fine (I swap stories with the nurse regarding our children). Early on in their placements the students are understandably nervous, but soften up like ageing fillings after a number of visits.

I have been treated for hereditary gum disease over my course of treatment and this is finally starting to clear up. Except for one 10 millimetre pocket next to one of my back teeth. This means that there is a void where my gums and teeth don’t connect for a whole centimetre down into my jaw.

I will have to have this pocket and the surrounding teeth deep cleaned to give the gums a chance of re-attaching and healing up. I will also have to have three small fillings. Three appointments in all should cover it.

What’s this got to do with MS? I hear you ask.

Well, most people have a local anaesthetic for deep pocket cleaning. I will request to forego this. I’ll just grit my teeth (sorry, again) and bear the pain. I know I can do it, I have done it before, albeit down to about 6 millimetres.

The reason is this: I am fed up with numbness and weird sensations. I have plenty of that to deal with on a daily basis. Also, I have developed such a high pain threshold these days, that I am prepared to endure the few minutes of sensitive sharp cold bone and nerve pain of the dentist than have a morning of slack-mouthed numbness and tingling. I may even see if there is a chance of doing the same for the fillings, but we’ll wait and see on that.

I don’t think I am being particularly “hard” or macho or anything. I think the psychology of the dentist makes you expect the pain to be worse than it actually is, in the same way that a wasp sting is in no way comparable to the panic stricken flapping and shrieking people make when one of the little creatures enters their airspace.

Don’t get me wrong, it will hurt…

…I’ll just have to grin and bear it. 🙂

Sativex to get a licence in the UK

According to the MS Trust, once the wording on the patient information document has been approved, Sativex will be getting NICE approval in the UK as early as this month (April 2010). My neurologist dismissed Sativex at my last yearly meeting, so it will be interesting to see his position in June. I need something extra for my neuropathic pain – Amitryptilline does a fine job but doesn’t always do it for me and I sometimes feel groggy on it (I know, Sativex may have similar side effects, but anything is worth trying, right?).

The MS Trust has a useful document on Sativex

Life with MS – analogies

There seem to be analogies every which way you turn when you discuss MS with other (oh heck!) “sufferers”.

The most popular one must be the MS MonSter (see what I did with the letters?). The one that sits on your chest in the morning and stops you getting up, demands a piggyback if you travel anywhere, pokes you in the eyes, trips you up, ties extra knots in your shoelaces etc.

My very first post on this blog mentioned this fella. There is even an MS Society (UK) publication called “Shrinking the Monster” – the downloadable pdf of which I would link to if I could be bothered with their irksome, user-unfriendly website. It is actually, quite a useful and beautifully conceived document outlining various coping strategies for house-training the beast. (I’ll search it out and add to the links menu soon – I promise).

Another analogy I have mentioned before is the MS terrorist group, lying in wait within the central nervous system, ready to set off their explosives or kidnap your senses, sometimes causing permanent damage (like they did with my doublevision, the bastards).

Not a million miles away from that analogy is the immune system as Gestapo which I have heard bandied around a few times, though I can’t help thinking that the keystone cops is more accurate. It’s there to do a job, but ends up creating more havoc in it’s wake.

The graphic artist Johnny Hicklenton, who ironically I have mixed feelings about, likens his MS to being in a bad relationship. One day it’s all joie-de-vivre and happy happy, the next it won’t let him walk down the road to the shops, without causing him extreme pain.

My current thinking is from a perspective of someone in remission. MS to me right now, at this moment, is like living on a volcano. It has been a while since the last eruption, and my garden is starting to grow back (despite the solidified lava flow that I can see from the kitchen window). Things are generally good, but the odd rumble underfoot reminds me it’s only a matter of time.

New weirdness

Starting at 1pm or thereabouts yesterday afternoon, my right leg went cold. The sort of cold you experience when you suck on a strong peppermint and then breath in really fast. My right leg went peppermint cold. Oh and it felt dripping wet as well.

Needless to say, in reality, it was warm and dry. No incontinence to worry about, thankfully.

I have had no let-up in feeling as far as I can tell, and no L’Hermitte’s sign indicating the unlikelihood of new lesions in the cervical spine. So what is it, then? And why so sudden and so strong?

I don’t think it is the start of a relapse as my right leg sometimes has a few issues with sensations anyway. Also, apart from a mild dizzy spell, I have had no other symptoms flaring up unexpectedly.

It hasn’t been constant, either. The sensation has just returned after two to three hours hiatus.

So just one of those weird things, I guess.

Giving in

View of East Moor, Derbyshire - 8 January 2003
View of East Moor, Derbyshire - 8 January 2003

Yesterday I gave in.

I rang work to say that I couldn’t make it to the bus stop (one mile away up an icy hill) because of the weather.

In January 2003, I put my books to one side (I was doing a masters degree at the time), donned my walking boots and headed out of the front door to go for a twenty mile circular walk across the snowy moors.

I was pondering my future at the time, so I was in limbo as far as starting a family, or gaining proper post-graduate employment was concerned. My most immediate worries were house-hunting, coursework and finalising a dissertation topic.

My feet had instintively led me along a route I had planned on the map and imagined in my head numerous times as I had lain in bed at night.

I spent a happy day winding through local farms, along lanes that linked nowhere with nowhere, through copses, across the moors, past prehistoric barrows and back via a middle-of-nowhere pub.

I remember one particularly cool moment dangling my feet over a gritstone edge, watching the sun breaking on distant snow (see picture) while exchanging texts with a friend in her central London office.

I made it back as dusk was setting in, the fiery sun anchored to the horizon, mirroring my rosy-cheeks, satisfied and happy with the exercise-induced endorphins doing their thing.

I felt rather wistful watching the thaw setting in, dripping the branches and slushing the roads.

“That’ll be the last time I ever do that,” I muttered, quietly resolving to prove myself wrong.

Since then, a few milestones have been passed: I (post-)graduated, got married, found a job, bought a house, had two kids, lost my mother, extended my house, found a better job…

…got diagnosed with MS.

All this time, I have held onto the thought that one day, one distant crisp white snow day, I would do it all again. I would brush off my walking boots, wonder at the previous walk that had caked the mud into the soles, layer up, pull on the pack full of the day’s essentials (map, sandwiches, hip flask), and set off again across my beloved Derbyshire countryside.

Yesterday I couldn’t even get out of town.

Halfway up the local hill, the snow and ice got the better of me. Oscillopsia set in and my legs felt like lead.

Phoning into work felt like I had given up, like I had lost a key battle. For the rest of the day my legs and feet nagged at me in the cruellest way possible by feeling like they actually had walked twenty miles, but without the endorphins to show for it.

Still, I’m the optimistic type.

Part of me knows there are other factors involved – I had worn myself out after abandoning my car to the snow the day before. I had also walked, with a sledge in tow, the four and a bit miles – there and back – to pick up my kids (actually, I cheated and we caught a bus some of the way back).

I may have lost this battle, and I know that ultimately I will lose the war (how heavily or lightly remains to be seen), but there are other battles.

I am resolving again that when the kids are a bit older and I have the spare time, I’ll be taken with the urge and I will head out again across those hills.

I’m planning it now.

Doublevision

Wahay! I am off to see an orthoptist tomorrow to talk doublevision.

Doublevision and eye movement problems in general have been my one constant since I had my last major relapse in 2008. My MS history is littered with symptoms and side effects that have come and gone or have fluctuated with other external factors such as stress, medication, temperature, exercise or pure  bad luck. Doublevision has remained constant since the spring of 2008.

Just like the MS in general, it is a companion but not a friend. It is the doublevision that reminds me I have MS when the other symptoms are lying low for a bit. I also think I have the doublevision to thank for the diagnosis – if I didn’t have it in the first place, I may not have made the fateful GP appointment. I would have probably lived with the tingling fingers, the fatigue, the occasional vertigo, even the pain for a bit longer before seeking medical advice.

Doublevision affects me only when I look left. From a single image looking straight ahead, two side-by-side images appear the instant I start looking left and the displacement increases the further I go. When I first discovered I had it, I tested it every breakfast-time by gradually looking left at two chimneys on the next street. These chimneys would eventually match up becoming one chimney with two TV aerials. It never got any worse, it never got any better. One and a half years on, it is still the same.

People ask me how I manage to drive with it. The answer is, I close one eye when looking left. Simple as that.

I find that I am constantly screwing up one eye in everyday situations, though, or I would have difficulty recognising people in the distance, crossing the road, participating in meetings and so on.

When I go out for a drink (I honestly don’t drink very much), I makes me feel drunk/ill way before I should do.

It doesn’t normally bother me. It’s constancy means I have learned to live with it. But it does tire me out and this has an impact on my mood and fatigue levels.

There are two possible solutions. One is to wear an eye patch. The other one is to wear glasses with prism lenses. I have no idea what these spectacles look like, so I have the fear of becoming the kid with the sticking plaster holding together a pair of national health specs. But then again I don’t fancy becoming Long John Silver either, therefore I have the orthoptist appointment tomorrow. It has been a long time coming and should hopefully have a positive impact on my quality of life.

A further appointment with an opthalmologist is scheduled for later this month.