By Pat Anson, Editor
You might call it the world’s longest house call.
Dr. Forest Tennant, a pain management physician in West Covina, California, will travel nearly a thousand miles this summer to meet with patients and doctors in Helena, Montana. Tennant will lead a two-day seminar on arachnoiditis, a chronic and painful spinal disease that leaves many patients permanently disabled.
Tennant’s trip to Montana is a reversal of sorts. For years, dozens of desperate arachnoiditis patients from Montana and other states have traveled cross-country to see him at his pain clinic outside Los Angeles.
“In the past it was considered a rare disease with no hope. We can do a lot to diagnose and to treat it now,” says Tennant, who has done extensive research on the disease and has launched an Arachnoiditis Education Project for physicians.
Arachnoiditis has nothing to do with arachnophobia, a fear of spiders. It’s an inflammation of the arachnoid membrane that surrounds the spinal cord. Over time, the inflammation causes scar tissue to build around spinal nerves, which begin to adhere or stick together. This leads to adhesive arachnoiditis, which causes severe chronic pain and other neurological problems. The disease is progressive, incurable and difficult to treat.
Once considered rare, Tennant is seeing more and more cases.
“Every pain practice I talk to now says ‘Oh, I have a patient with this.’ This is an emerging issue that every practice in the country will have to become aware of, just like Hepatitis C or AIDS or Lyme disease. It’s one of these diseases that’s here. It’s not going away. The fact is we’re all going to grow older and we all have spines that are going deteriorate. We’re going to end up with this. We have the technology and the knowledge now to diagnose it and the protocol to treat it.”
Tennant uses a combination of pain medication, hormones and anti-inflammatory drugs to manage the symptoms of arachnoiditis and possibly stop its progression. He wants to share with Montana doctors what he’s learned.
“We would like to identify some practitioners in the area who are interested in the disease and who would be willing to treat patients,” says Tennant. “We’d also like to foster the development of patient groups for self-support. Those are the two goals.”
Montana may be small in terms of population, but the Big Sky state has fostered some of the most vocal and educated grassroots activists in the pain community. Several have arachnoiditis, and after years of dealing with a healthcare system that failed to treat or even recognize their symptoms, they’re finally getting some attention.
Kate Lamport, a 33-year old mother of four from Helena, developed arachnoiditis after a series of epidural injections for child birth and bulging discs in her back. Her back pain was originally thought to be from fibromyalgia or Lyme disease, but on a trip to California to see Tennant a few months ago, she was diagnosed with arachnoiditis.
“While I was there, I was blown away by the amount of people that have arachnoiditis and how undertreated and under acknowledged a disease it is,” says Lamport, who pitched the idea of a seminar to Tennant.
“I asked him if I put together a conference if he would speak at it and teach other doctors and patients that don’t have an opportunity to come see him,” says Lamport. “Doctor Tennant is so knowledgeable. If I call him and I say this is what’s acting up, he knows what to say and what to do. A month ago my adrenal glands shutdown and that’s when you die. And he knew what to do to get me out of that.”
Many patients are convinced they developed arachnoiditis after surgeries or epidural steroid injections that damaged their spines. But Tennant believes the underlying causes are more complex.
“There are several ways to get this. Unfortunately, there’s too much focus on medical procedures,” he says Tennant. “There are people we now know who have gotten it from viral infections, Lyme disease, auto-immune disorders, and what have you. There are a lot of different reasons why you get this and medical procedures can accelerate it.”
There’s a great deal of debate in the medical community over the value of spinal injections, surgeries, spinal cord stimulators and other “interventional” procedures to treat back pain. About 9 million epidural steroid injections are performed annually in the United States, often as a substitute for opioid pain medication.
Tennant says epidurals can be effective, but are increasingly overused, with some patients getting dozens of injections annually.
“Unfortunately, somebody who’s had a lot of back procedures is likely to end up with arachnoiditis. It’s a complication of medical procedures that may not be able to be avoided. And I want to make a point of this. Somebody who needs back surgery may have to take the risk,” he says.
The arachnoiditis seminar will be held July 9th and 10th at the Radisson Hotel in Helena, Montana's capital. For further additional information or to register for the conference, click here.
Montana Public Radio recently broadcast a two-part series on “pain refugees” leaving the state for treatment and the fear many Montana doctors have about prescribing opioids, which may have led one pain patient to commit suicide.