By Pat Anson, Editor
A pioneering two-day conference on arachnoiditis has ended in Helena, Montana with dozens of patients armed with new information about the chronic and disabling spinal disease.
Many are also left wondering who will treat them and how to pay for it.
"We practitioners need your help and you need our help," says Forest Tennant, MD, who is the world's foremost authority on arachnoiditis, a progressive and incurable inflammation of the spinal cord that leaves most people who have it with severe chronic pain.
Tennant, who treats about 60 arachnoiditis patients from around the country at his pain clinic in West Covina, California, has developed a complex and unique therapy for arachnoiditis that combines pain medication, anti-inflammatory drugs, vitamins and hormones. Once bedridden or using walkers, several of his patients were healthy enough to make the long trip to Montana to hear him speak.
"I would not dare prescribe these drugs if I didn't have control of the opioids and everything else you're doing. These things are hazardous in the hands of the inexperienced," he warned.
At age 75, Tennant knows it is time for other doctors to learn and start practicing his treatment methods. But he and his patients face a dilemma. Most pain management doctors and specialists already have a full patient load and Tennant himself is not taking new patients.
"Every good specialist in this country is booked. They're not available and they don't know anything about this anyway," says Tennant.
"Pain management really is its own specialty now and if they're not in that field, they're not going to help you do this. These hormones are going to have to be done by the same doctor that manages your pain and manages your inflammation. It's going to have to be done by the same practitioner."
If attendance at the conference is any indication, finding doctors willing to learn and practice Tennant's treatment protocol will be difficult. Invitations went out to over two thousand practitioners in Montana, but only a handful showed up. No one from the Montana Medical Association or the Montana Board of Medical Examiners attended.
"The problem with this protocol in the conventional medical world is that this crosses disciplines. We're talking rheumatologists, we're talking endocrinologists, and that's where conventional medicine gets stuck," says Christine White, ND, a naturopathic physician from Missoula who attended the conference. "Conventional medicine has evolved into this realm where the general practitioner doesn't do a lot. They refer out (to specialists) and what we need to do as physicians is get general practitioners willing to take on more rings of this problem."
The problem may be a bigger one that anyone imagines. Tennant estimates as many as one million Americans may suffer from arachnoiditis, many of them misdiagnosed with “failed back syndrome” or other spinal problems.
Most people get the disease when the arachnoid membrane that surrounds their spinal cord is damaged during surgery or punctured by a needle during an epidural steroid injection. Inflammation sets in and can spiral out of control, forming scar tissue that cause spinal nerves to stick together. That leads to adhesive arachnoiditis and neurological problems, which can cause burning or stinging pain that can be felt from head to toe.
Insurance Won't Pay the Bills
Besides getting treatment, another common problem faced by arachnoiditis sufferers is their insurance coverage.
"The reimbursement structure is part of the problem and the reason why I ended up with adhesive arachnoiditis," says Terri Anderson, who as a federal employee was covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield when she went to get treatment for back pain.
"I think the doctors and surgeons looked at my Blue Cross Blue Shield and they wanted to do epidural steroid injections and spinal surgery. Blue Cross had good coverage for all these invasive procedures, so I think they have some culpability," she said
Like many arachnoiditis patients, Anderson is not reimbursed for the unusual drugs and hormone therapy that she gets "off label" from Dr. Tennant or for the cost of traveling to see him in California. Her out of pocket expenses add up to about $200 a month.
"My co-pays for my medications are about $500 a month," says Nancy Marr of Los Angeles, who is insured through Medicare and a supplemental policy with AARP. Marr doesn't have to travel far to see Tennant, but she does have to pay out-of-pocket for his services.
"To participate in this kind of a program at this point in time would end up costing people a tremendous amount of out-of-pocket costs," she says.
While all of this is discouraging, the mood was anything but gloomy at the conference. For many, including this reporter, it was their first chance to meet and interact with people they've been communicating with online for years. That sense of community and a common goal stirs optimism. And so does the knowledge that the conference may have laid the groundwork for a treatment that could ultimately benefit thousands of people who are suffering.