A Zebra With the Heart of a Lion 

By Dawn Tucker, Guest Columnist 

Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) sucks.  There, I said it.  I have EDS Type 3 hypermobility and it hurts. I cry every day, sometimes two and three times a day.

I have dislocated various parts of my body due to collagen deficiency.  I have what is called frequent subluxations. My neck, shoulders and wrists have sprained for no reason other than I turned too quickly or took a deep breath.  I never knew why. I just knew people judged me and were critical whenever I mentioned the severity of my pain. 

My whole life (and I am 50 years old now) has been spent listening to others tell me my pain is all in my head, or that I am lazy or crazy. So I stopped telling people about it because no one wants to listen to a constant complainer. 

Instead I isolate and spend most of my time -- when not working -- in bed trying to get my body to cooperate with me.  It doesn’t.

I have three children and five grandchildren.  One son and one grandson also have EDS, and I cry because I know they will be judged and criticized by people who don’t understand. 

I once heard someone tell my son, “Something is always wrong with you.’ And I thought to myself, they could be talking to me.  I am beset with migraines, insomnia, dental issues, allergies, fatigue, irritable bowels, sprains, pains and aches.

I too have been told, “Something is always wrong with you.”

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And they are right.  Something is always wrong with me.  On bad days I want to give up.  Then I remember, I might be the only person my son or grandson knows, who truly understands their pain.  I cannot give up on them, even if at times I want to give up on myself.  

I try to be strong and do everything myself.  I hate to ask for help and I tire of arguing with people about my condition. Yet I know I will argue for my son and grandson.

In the last few years, I have made acquaintance with others who have EDS.  But I’ve met only two doctors that were familiar with EDS, so I took to learning more on the internet.  The internet offers a chance to get the word out about this condition. To let others know about EDS and the often painful associations because of this inherited disease. 

Medical students are sometimes told, “When you hear hoof beats behind you, don’t expect to see a zebra.” That’s why EDS is symbolized by a zebra. It is misdiagnosed, under-diagnosed or simply not considered.  

I am living proof that sometimes it really is a zebra.  I have no problem with being a zebra, but this zebra has the heart of a lion.  

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Dawn Tucker lives in Ohio.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to editor@painnewsnetwork.org.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

A Funeral for My Health

By Crystal Lindell, Columnist

I want to have a funeral for my health. I want to go abroad and throw its ashes into the sea while wearing a beautiful black dress and Jackie O sunglasses to hide my tear-stained eyes.

I want to take a week off work and forget to shower while everyone brings me casseroles. And I want all of my friends and family to acknowledge what I’ve lost with slideshows and poorly written eulogies that succeed in making everyone cry.

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I want to drink too much wine in a vain attempt to numb the pain, and maybe even take up smoking and a few bad men.

I want to sit around with lipstick stained coffee cups late at night telling stories about how amazing it was — my health.

How it let me lead so many youths on mission trips to far-off places. How it let me fall in love so many times. How it let me shower without pain, lured me into believing I would be immortal, and how it allowed me to travel the world.

I want to take all the time I need to figure out how the hell I’m going to live the rest of my life without it. How I will find love, be independent, and survive all of my physical limitations.

And I want the planet to just stop turning for one second while I catch my breath and adjust to the fact that world is a different place than it was.

The obituary would read as follows:

Crystal Sue Lindell’s health died after a 5-year long battle with her body. Her health was 34.

News about the loss came via email from her doctor when he confirmed her worst fears: She likely had hypermobile Ehlers Danlos syndrome (EDS) -- a diagnosis that meant that she would not only never get better, she would likely continue to get worse.

Her health is survived by her body, which will, unfortunately, carry on, in immense pain, despite the loss.

There is no cure for EDS, and as such, her health is completely dead.

She looks forward to seeing her beautiful health again one day in the afterlife, where she hopes it will be waiting for her among the stars.

In lieu of flowers, Crystal asks that donations be made to EDS Awareness, a non-profit online resource for the EDS community.

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Crystal Lindell is a journalist who lives in Illinois. She eats too much Taco Bell, drinks too much espresso, and spends too much time looking for the perfect pink lipstick. She has hypermobile EDS. 

Crystal writes about it on her blog, “The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.”

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

An Open Letter to All the Doctors Who Missed My EDS

By Crystal Lindell, Columnist

I hate you. I actually hate you.

Well, maybe not all of you.

But most of you, yes I hate. Actually, hate is too nice word. I detest you. I loathe you. I have venom in my heart for you. I hope your favorite show gets cancelled after a cliff hanger. I hope your air conditioner breaks in your car in July. I hope your crush never likes any of your Instagram photos. I hope every single time you go through the Taco Bell drive thru, they mess up your order. And I hope your phone screen cracks, your laptop crashes and you lose everything you ever saved.

I was recently diagnosed with Hypermobile Ehlers Danlos syndrome (hEDS), a connective tissue disorder that not only explains why my ribs always feel broken, but also why I’m always covered in unexplained bruises, why I sprain my ankles too often, why my vision changed for no reason, why my skin is baby soft, and why I crave salt.

And so many doctors missed it. And I can’t get it out of my head.

Like the doctor at Loyola who told me to stop coming to see him because there was nothing else he could do about my pain.

And the other doctor at Loyola who looked right at me while I was sitting on the exam table in just a paper-thin gown and said, “Well there are two options. You either woke up with a completely unexplainable pain, or you’re a great actress.”

I was so caught off guard that I didn’t even realize he was accusing me of trying to get drugs for like a full 30 seconds.

I also hate literally every single doctor at the Mayo Clinic that missed this crap. You know how easy it is to do an initial test for hEDS?

Doctor: "Can you bend your thumb to your wrist?"

Patient: "Yes."

Doctor: "Yeah, you probably have it. Let’s do a full evaluation."

IT’S THAT EASY!!!

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The Mayo Clinic missed it because they were obsessed with me going to their rehab clinic and getting off opioids, despite the fact that it wasn’t covered by my insurance and that they required a $35,000 upfront payment.

So yes, I hate all of you.

I also hate every single chiropractor I ever saw. Seriously, all you guys do is see people in pain, and it never crosses your mind to evaluate for EDS? Why are you not asking every single patient who walks through your doors if they can touch their thumb to their wrist? What is wrong with you?

Not to mention the fact that chiropractors have to be super careful with EDS patients, if they treat them at all, because things can dislocate and all that. It’s irresponsible of you not to be evaluating every single patient for EDS.

I also hate the pain specialist who berated me for not wanting a spinal cord stimulator. If he had evaluated me for EDS, he would have known that a spinal cord stimulator would have probably been a horrible idea for me. Like chiropractors, all pain specialists do is see people in pain. They should be evaluating every single patient they see for EDS too! 

The whole thing is so infuriating and frustrating. I sincerely wish I could go back to every single doctor I have seen over the last five years and personally tell all of them how much I hate them. And then I wish I could tell all of them to freaking check people for EDS. But I can’t do that. All I can do is write this letter and then try to move forward with my new life and my new diagnosis.

But if you’re a pain patient and you can touch your thumb to your wrist, get checked for EDS. Seriously.

And if you’re a doctor, do better.

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Crystal Lindell is a journalist who lives in Illinois. She eats too much Taco Bell, drinks too much espresso, and spends too much time looking for the perfect pink lipstick. She has hypermobile EDS. 

Crystal writes about it on her blog, “The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.”

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

How I Started Telling People I Have EDS

By Crystal Lindell, Columnist

One of the first people I told about my new Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (hEDS) diagnosis was a local politician.

I was still trying to get a feel for how the letters EDS tasted on my lips. How they felt in my breath. How people would react when I said them. And truth be told, this was when doctors were telling me I probably had it, but before I was officially diagnosed — that came later.

He didn’t know he was among the first people I told — that he was a test case. But there we were, at a local Democrats meeting and he asked me about medical marijuana, and I decided to go for it. 

“I actually have EDS,” I said. “My thumb touches my wrist, want to see? Yes, marijuana should be legalized. No, it won’t help everyone.”

He had the response most people seem to have.

“Maybe it will get better?”

“It won’t get better,” I told him.

“Yeah, but maybe it will! Once, I was sick and then I got better. So maybe you will get better.”

“It won’t.”

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I get it. Nobody wants to really understand that being born in the wrong family is enough to sentence you to a lifetime of weak ankles and debilitating pain. It’s hard to understand that. It’s hard to accept that. It’s a lot easier to believe someone might get better.

It’s been hard for me to accept that. And harder still to say it out loud.

I have found though that it feels easier to lay the news on random acquaintances. The Tinder guy I met once. The woman who expertly bleaches my hair at the over-priced salon. The clerk at Walgreen's ringing up my pain medications.

There’s something to be said for telling random strangers something so overwhelming. It greatly reduces the consequences of your words — and of their reaction.

My initial instinct was to tell the people closest to me, my inner circle, first. But that quickly become completely overwhelming. Those people care way too much about me. They take it way too hard. It cuts too deep.

No, strangers are much better. They are morbidly impressed with my thumb to wrist trick. They are able to distance themselves from the depressing, long-term aspects of the diagnosis and ask horrifically, wonderful mundane questions like, “What does EDS stand for?”

And they never stop to think about what it might mean for my future. That’s my favorite part. Because the future looks very scary right now. And I need to do my best to stay in the present.

I have forced myself to pepper in the tougher conversations with the people who care about me. The late-nights over tears with my best friend wondering what this might mean for my future. Asking things like, what if I can never kids? And even if I can, do I want to risk passing it on to them?

Will I need assisted care sooner than most? How will I ever explain my health to future lovers? Why did it take so excessively long to get the diagnosis? How much of my life was wasted waiting for it? What could have been different if only I had known sooner? Will my siblings need to be evaluated? And what happens if they have it too?

All the things that fill me with grief and despair if I let them.

But strangers never ask questions like that. And even if they do, they don’t actually care about the answers that much. And I love that about them.

Eventually, hopefully, it will just become one more things about me. I’m blonde, I don’t like Trump, I love Burn Notice, I eat too much Taco Bell, and I have hEDS. It’s part of who I am, but not the whole part, or even the most important part. Just another casual fact in my Instagram bio next to things like, “I like lipstick.”

And no, I won’t actually ever getter better, but eventually, hopefully, I’ll get better at having hEDS and telling people about it.

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Crystal Lindell is a journalist who lives in Illinois. She eats too much Taco Bell, drinks too much espresso, and spends too much time looking for the perfect pink lipstick. She has hypermobile EDS. 

Crystal writes about it on her blog, “The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.”

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Finding Out I Have EDS

By Crystal Lindell, Columnist

It turns out pain has been running through my veins all along. It has been a part of my bones since the day I was born. I just didn’t know it.

I have recently been diagnosed with something called hypermobile EDS, which is a subtype of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Basically, my connective tissue is weaker than it should be.

It explains why I spent the last five years feeling like the bones in my rib cage were cracked. It explains why my legs and arms are often painted blue and purple and shades of Army green with bruises from injuries I have no memory of. And it explains why my ankles gave way so often over the years that I ended up with an entire dresser drawer full of beige ankle wraps.

It also explains why everyone who ever loved me would describe me as clumsy. And why I got tendonitis at such a relatively young age. It explains my vision changes and my “bad veins” and my soft skin.  

Readers have privately messaged me many times to get checked for EDS, but I thought it was too rare. I thought my doctors would think I was stupid or crazy for asking about it. And I didn’t think it ran in my family.

I was devastatingly wrong about all those of things.

And at every crossroad over the last few weeks, at every opportunity to find out that maybe I was overreacting, my worst fears were confirmed.

First by the osteopath, who asked if I could touch my thumb to my wrist, and when I showed her I could, said plainly, “Oh yeah, you could definitely have EDS.”

Then by my cousin, who herself has suffered from unexplained pain and health issues for years. When I asked if her doctors had ever thought she might have EDS, she replied, simply, "Yes, they have."

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Next came my mom, who I tried to avoid involving in all this for as long as possible, because I knew it would be harder on her than it was on me to find out I might have EDS. As she sat on the couch across from me, she scrolled through the list of signs and symptoms on her phone and then abruptly stopped.

“I think my dad had this,” she said.

A revelation. An epiphany of the worst kind.

Her dad. The man who died when I was 3. The man everyone always said spent his life dealing with unexplained pain. The man I was haphazardly compared to whenever I popped pills. The man who I had no memory of. It was him. He was the link. 

And then the dots just started connecting themselves. Like when you watch an eight-part Netflix show and it takes the characters until the very last episode to realize that the killer was in the house all along and you’re screaming at the TV to try to tell them, but they just don’t see it.

Then, finally, they see it. 

It turns out his mom likely had EDS too. My mom’s grandma, and my great-grandma, Hazel. The family lore is that she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 26 and spent most of her life miserable and in horrible pain. I have now discovered that her RA was probably, at the very least, an incomplete diagnosis.

When I talked to her son, my great-uncle, I expected him to prove me wrong. To say something that countered my suspicions. But he did exactly the opposite. The last year of her life the doctors had told him that her body was like a bunch of bricks and the cement holding them together was deteriorating. EDS explained with a construction metaphor.

Even more heartbreaking was that he said all they ever gave her for her pain was aspirin. That’s it. Aspirin. And it did not help.

I had been hoping -- since it was so long ago --- that they were more generous with the pain medications at the time. That they had gladly given her all the morphine she wanted. But, as with so many things lately, the opposite of what I believed was actually true.

I told my pain specialist at the university hospital in Wisconsin about all this. And until the very end I hoped he would prove me wrong. That he would accuse me of being hysterical. But instead, he said simply, “Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is a possibility, based on your reports and my prior examination. Best bet would be for you to come in for a visit.”

And that’s when I knew. That was all I needed to finally understand that the killer was in the house the whole time.

“Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is a possibility.”

“Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is a possibility.”

“Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is a possibility.”

It played over and over and over in my head. I let myself think for a second. There it is. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is a possibility.

I scheduled a visit for March 15. And this week, after spending about 45 minutes bending me like a Gumby doll, he confirmed it. I have hypermobile EDS – or hEDS for short.

I am fairly certain that all of those wonderful, strong people out there who live with EDS will know how devastated I am by all this. And how sad it makes me. I cannot talk myself out of the grief I have been feeling. Because now, not only will I likely never get better, the odds are high that I will get worse. There is no cure, only treatments that manage the symptoms. And physical therapy to prevent others.

All I can think about is the doctor at Loyola from the very beginning. The one I first saw with shooting pain in my wrists five years ago. The one I went back to a few months later hoping to find answers for the new pain in my ribs.

The one who looked right at me and said, “Please stop coming in. There is nothing I can do to help you.”

The one who could have found this so easily, if only he had taken the time to look for it. The one who pushed me into piles of medical bills and doctor visits and nights with unexplained pain because he thought I was making it all up. Or at the very least, overreacting.

I want to go back to his office and show him what I learned. I want to yell in his face, “IT’S EDS! I WASN’T BEING CRAZY! I WAS IN PAIN!! I NEEDED YOUR HELP!!!”

And then I want to cry. Again. Because crying seems like the only appropriate response to all of this right now.

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Crystal Lindell is a journalist who lives in Illinois. She eats too much Taco Bell, drinks too much espresso, and spends too much time looking for the perfect pink lipstick. She has hypermobile EDS. 

Crystal writes about it on her blog, “The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.”

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Rare Disorders Require Unusual Care

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of listing cannabis as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act is underway in New York City.

The plaintiffs, including an Iraq War veteran with PTSD and a 12-year-old girl with a rare seizure disorder, are claiming that the government’s decision to classify marijuana as an illegal controlled substance is irrational, unconstitutional and motivated by politics, not science.

The position of the federal government is simple: Marijuana has no accepted medical use and poses a significant risk of abuse and addiction.  But the situation is complex and emblematic of a larger issue – which is the medical treatment of people with rare and incurable disorders.

Modern medicine is an increasingly precise undertaking involving thousands of possible diagnoses, many with multiple treatment options.

There is a wide range of disorders that involve crippling anxiety, including post-traumatic stress disorder. There are also many seizure disorders, including conditions like Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, that are extremely difficult to treat.

In the same fashion, there are hundreds of disorders that cause debilitating pain that persists for months, years or even a lifetime, including interstitial cystitis, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, and trigeminal neuralgia.

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Many of these disorders are rare and entirely unfamiliar to non-specialists. But even when the disorder itself is not so rare, its presentation may be rare in terms of severity. Fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis are common enough, but still can be debilitating in some cases.

As a result, research on such disorders is thin and clinical trials are few and far between. For instance, there are no studies of cannabis for small fiber neuropathy and only a handful on cannabis for cluster headaches. When trials do exist, they are easily criticized as being statistically underpowered because of the small number of participants.

Moreover, standard treatments do not necessarily work for everyone. Neuropathic pain sometimes responds well to neuroleptic drugs like gabapentin (Neurontin), but as a recent Cochrane review found, over half of those treated with gabapentin will not have worthwhile pain relief and may experience adverse side effects.

Usual Rules Don’t Apply

Many people with rare disorders are often medically atypical in other important ways. Patients with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, for example, are famously intolerant of a wide range of medications. So the usual rules about medications may not even apply to people with rare disorders.

All of this creates obvious clinical difficulties. It is not easy to develop standards of care for rare disorders. General recommendations are based on limited clinical experience and testing, often with people whose reactions to common, generally well-tolerated medications are unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Thus, medications that are controversial may still be useful for people with rare disorders, especially if they are refractory to common treatments.

The opioid crisis has been national news for years, with many states, insurers like Kaiser Permanente and Intermountain Health, and drug store chains like CVS moving to reduce prescribing levels. But for some conditions, opioid medication remains one of the few viable alternatives.

For instance, the Mayo Clinic recognizes the value of opioids for refractory restless leg syndrome, calling them “a mainstay in the management of these patients.” And the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke acknowledges the complexity of neuropathic pain when it lists opioids and anticonvulsants as potentially useful.

The situation is similar for medical cannabis. The federal government gave marijuana Schedule I status in the 1970s, but many states legalized medical cannabis in the past two decades in part to deal with rare disorders that do not respond to conventional treatment. Clinical research is justifying this.  A 2017 trial of cannabidiol for drug-resistant seizures in Dravet Syndrome found that cannabis based medication reduced the frequency of convulsive seizures.

In other words, rare disorders involving problems such as severe pain, seizures or anxiety require highly specialized care using all available options. In many cases, people with these disorders have failed first-line therapies and even second-line therapies. They are facing choices that do not occur in everyday clinical practice but now have to be considered.

Thus, the issue here goes beyond rescheduling cannabis or reining in opioid prescribing. The average person has little if any medical need for these substances. But medicine has to address the needs of all people, and healthcare laws and regulations cannot ignore the reality that some people are living with challenging and rare disorders.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

How to Prepare for a Scheduled Hospitalization

By Ellen Lenox Smith, Columnist

No one enjoys the experience of being admitted to the hospital. Indeed, hospitalization can provoke extreme anxiety, which does not contribute to successful outcomes in any medical procedure.

Proper preparation before you go to the hospital not only reduces stress, but enhances the probability of a successful medical experience and helps promote a smoother healing process – all of which lead to considerable benefits to the patient.

For example, while recently preparing for a revised neck fusion, I realized that eating would become an immediate issue because nutrition is so important for healing. I don’t want to rely solely on hospital food, so I am preparing meals that I puree and freeze for my husband to bring to the hospital that I can sip through a straw.

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Here is a list of other things I plan on doing:

  • I plan to arrive with all of my compounded medications in their labeled containers, along with my regular pharmaceutical drugs, so I will not miss any scheduled doses.
  • I will bring my entire medical folder, which includes my name, address, insurance coverage, contact information for my primary care doctor, pharmacy and nurse case manager, a list of medications and dosages, a list of medications I am sensitive to, previous surgeries, and my diagnoses.
  • I will also include a list of Do’s and Don’ts to help keep the staff educated about Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and keep me safe when I might not be able to advocate for myself.
  • I will pack my supplements that I will take after the surgery, so my body is allowed to quickly return to the routine it is used to.
  • I will bring a special pillow that I sleep with that keeps my head in the correct position all night long (I use the Therapeutica Sleeping Pillow).
  • I will give to the staff my list of food sensitivities and request to meet with the hospital dietician in hopes of getting food delivered that I can metabolize.
  • I will pack t-shirts, loose flannel pants and warm socks so I can walk around the halls comfortably, instead of having to wear those lovely gowns you wake up from surgery in!
  • I will bring a small bag of toiletries I prefer to use, along with a comb, brush and a toothbrush since what they provide always seems to be so skimpy.
  • I will prepare a list of friends and family phone numbers for my husband/caregiver to contact after the surgery is completed.
  • I will bring my Living Will and any needed directives.
  • I will wear my medical alert bracelet and will ask that they please read what is on it!
  • I will bring my own BiPAP breathing machine, so I know I am sleeping with the correct readings. I’ll also have the doctor write down the exact setting in case the hospital decides to use their own machine.
  • I’ll bring things to do that are simple and peaceful that will help calm me, as well as items that will help re-stimulate the mind, such as Sudoku puzzles, adult coloring books and quiet music to listen to.
  • I will pack enough food for my service dog to cover a few weeks, in case we stay longer than expected. I will also make sure I have her list of shots and credentials proving she is a legal service dog.
  • With serious food sensitivities, I always pack snacks.
  • I will bring paper and pen to jot down things I want to remember to ask the doctor when he arrives in the room. It is not a time to count on one’s memory!
  • I will bring my cellphone and charger to keep connected to the world when back in a room.
  • I will bring a list of my passwords in case I need to use the internet.
  • I will contact my case manager nurse to alert her of the upcoming surgery, so she is able to help assist with in any snags that might come up and arrange for home healthcare when I’m discharged from the hospital.
  • Many of my surgeries are out-of-state, so I make sure my primary care provider clears me for surgery in writing and sends a copy to the hospital. I’ll also bring a hard copy with me, in case they don’t get it or it is misplaced.

Anything a patient can do to simplify the hospitalization is worthwhile! For those of us with complicated and rare medical conditions, we must be prepared to advocate for ourselves. I have found that, for the most part, hospital staff does appreciate enlightened input from patients on best practices and how to keep us safe from harm.

As effective patient advocates, we need to educate others not only for our own safety, but to benefit future patients with our condition.

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Ellen Lenox Smith suffers from Ehlers Danlos syndrome and sarcoidosis. Ellen and her husband Stuart are co-directors for medical marijuana advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation and serve as board members for the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition.

For more information about medical marijuana, visit their website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

ER Safety Tips for Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Patients

By Ellen Lenox Smith, Columnist

People living with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) are often afraid to go to a hospital emergency room, due to a lack of understanding in the ER staff on how to safely care for them. I myself recently had another negative experience, one that almost killed me.

In the process of being admitted, after passing out over and over due to low blood pressure, things went terribly wrong. While being transferred from the ambulance to the hospital stretcher, my hip was dislocated. This dislocation was unintentional, but avoidable, as it was a direct result of the rough manner in which the transfer was managed.

On top of this, they gave me no IV fluids for several hours, which should have been the first thing done to help elevate my blood pressure. Complicating matters even further, no food was brought to my room that I could safely eat and metabolize for the two days I was there.

And then, when a nurse thought I had stopped breathing, she compressed my chest to stimulate my heart, even though I was wearing two medical bracelets warning I shouldn’t be given chest compressions. Three months later, I am still paying for these mistakes.

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As a result of my traumatizing and life threatening experience, I sent a letter to the hospital in the hopes of never having another EDS patient experience what I did. I was shocked to receive a call that resulted in the hospital taking me up on my offer to meet with their doctors and nurses to help them understand how to properly handle us.

To prepare for this meeting, I asked other EDS patients to submit suggestions to enhance my program. I hope that this list will be helpful to both patients and hospital staff.

How to Treat Ehlers-Danlos Patients

  • Consider having a generic EDS protocol for staff to get a quick understanding of this condition with new patients.
  • Put notes or a bulletin board or patient chart to share information and keep the patient safe from shift to shift.
  • Be cautious, for EDS is an “invisible condition” so remember to do no harm. Understand that touching and moving us can create more problems, so listen to the patient. Tread lightly using chest compressions, because our ribs sublux, dislocate and break easily. Allow EDS patients to position themselves safely before any procedure.
  • Subluxations are a real thing. Don't just take a quick x-ray and tell us, "It's nothing, you're fine.” When a joint feels wrong, there's an injury worth finding some relief for.
  • Because we bruise easily, don’t rush to judgement with EDS children before reporting abuse.
  • If someone arrives with an ID warning bracelet, please read and respect what is says!
  • If a patient has low blood pressure, elevate their bed to a 30% angle. Hook up IV fluids quickly and approve the patient’s BP medication in time for their next dose. Consider using a PICC line if the IV does not hold.
  • Many EDS patients are drug reactive, so respect if a DNA drug test has been done or listen to what medications have not worked in past. Pain relief is difficult to achieve with EDS so please believe the person.
  • Some of us use compounded medications that need to be accepted in place of what you have in stock in the pharmacy. Some also use supplements, so please respect the use of them. Many are using the Cusack Protocol supplement routine.
  • If a patient is using cannabis for pain control, consider allowing CBD use in the hospital in an oil, tincture, topical or pill form.
  • Many of us are food reactive, so send your dietician to the room to meet the patient and create a safe meal plan.
  • If a patient sleeps with CPAP or BPAP mask, be sure that it gets brought in and worn during sleep.
  • Have on staff a physical therapist that can use manual energy techniques for re-alignment or allow an EDS manual therapist on the floor.
  • If there is a need to draw blood, use a butterfly or small pediatric needle.
  • If there is a need for intubation, be careful with movement of the neck and use small equipment. If an EDS patient presents with a neck fusion, do intubation using the fiber optic glidescope.
  • If stitches are needed, try to using natural products over synthetic.
  • Many of us have wound healing issues, so please be careful with the choice of tape and its removal. Some of us have skin that is fragile and easily tears.
  • All types of EDS are at increased risk for scary vascular events. Any sudden or severe chest or abdominal pain needs a scan to rule out an aneurysm or another serious condition.

If surgery is needed, be sure to have your anesthesiologist do a pre-op interview before any procedures. Be careful about joint positioning and manipulation when performing anesthesia. Yes, that "jaw thrust maneuver" may make intubation easier or more comfortable, but it's not worth the months of rehab from a dislocated jaw.

Please reassure your orthopedic residents that we'd prefer to avoid surgery, too. Having them share their fears out loud that they don't want to operate on EDS patients because “that'll just make things worse" may be true, but it's not helpful. Nobody wants to feel like an untouchable leper. Instead, please focus on what you can do to help. It might be as simple as helping to reposition the joint to a more neutral spot, and then bracing or splinting it there to give things a rest before starting physical therapy

Ehlers-Danlos can be a very painful, isolating and heartbreaking condition to live with. We would love to come to a hospital for emergency help and not be afraid to be sent home in worse shape. Let’s all work to educate the medical field and improve the future for us all coping with this condition. May this list be a start for you!

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Ellen Lenox Smith suffers from Ehlers Danlos syndrome and sarcoidosis. Ellen and her husband Stuart are co-directors for medical marijuana advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation and serve as board members for the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition.

For more information about medical marijuana, visit their website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

I am a Drug User, Not an Abuser

By Mary Cremer, Guest Columnist

I have chronic pain from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and Chiari Malformation, a condition in which my brain tissue extends into the spinal canal. I have also had CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) Leaks. Chiari is not well understood and Ehlers Danlos causes constant pain.

Since my symptoms started in 2012, I have had three brain surgeries and two spinal cord surgeries. I take opioids for pain and muscle relaxers to reduce the muscle cramps and spasticity. 

MARY CREMER

MARY CREMER

The meds reduce the pain to a more tolerable level. Without them I would not be able to work full time as a secretary. Working is extremely difficult, but I take pride in using meds to help better my situation. 

In 2016, I had my fifth surgery and finally had some relief. In a little over a month I tapered off all medications. It was not hard, because the pain had let up temporarily. Last summer and fall were good, but then the winter brought back the pain and other symptoms.  I went back on opioids and muscle relaxers. I continue to search for help and work full time. 

I am still able to get medication, but I am worried about the future. I am afraid of having back spasms causing my brain to herniate again. If this happens, it will mean a major reconstruction surgery. 

I feel if chronic pain sufferers don't speak up for themselves, we will lose our pain control options. People that don't have chronic pain do not understand what it is like to live like this. The media is making this out to be war, when it's not.

I want people to know that, although I am a drug user, I am NOT a drug abuser. I function as an active and productive member of society. Without the opioids and the muscle relaxers, I could not work. I would be at a loss as to how I would live. I could see how people would turn to street drugs or suicide.

Lawmakers continue to impose their ignorance to "save people," but they need to keep in mind that not all users are abusers.  When you think about people using pain medication, consider people like me – a taxpayer, a mother and a wife. Many of us are working. Taking our pain meds away will only result in higher disability rates, street drugs increasing and more suicides. 

I want to remain a valuable member of society. Please remember me.

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Mary Cremer lives with her family in Missouri.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us.  Send them to:  editor@PainNewsNetwork.org

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

The Case for Opioid Therapy

By Jordan LaMark, Guest Columnist

I take opioid pain medication and I am not ashamed of it. I refuse to feel guilty for needing medication.

I am not an addict. I do not deserve to be treated like a criminal – and for that matter, neither do addicts. I should not have to jump through hoops, be subjected to intense scrutiny, and constantly be forced to prove how much pain I’m in to receive my medication. It shouldn’t be a battle to receive treatment.

I live with Ehlers Danlos syndrome, a chronic incurable condition that causes daily unceasing pain. The pain wears at me, saps my energy, and severely restricts my functionality.

I also battle many other symptoms -- chronic fatigue, nausea, dysfunction of my autonomic nervous system, and failure of my digestive tract that requires me to be fed by a surgically implanted feeding tube (which is also very painful, and has altered my core muscles and posture). I sometimes need a wheelchair to get around and often cannot leave the house for days.

I spend most of my time dealing with my medical conditions. My pain medication gives me some relief and improves my functionality without negative side effects. I also use many other techniques to deal with my pain, including several forms of therapy, and I’ve had two surgeries to treat severe endometriosis.

Despite all of this, I am a happy person and do as much as I physically can, spending time with my family, going to church and daytime events, even the beach. Now, however, I am afraid that there may come a point when I may be unable to obtain the medication that improves my quality of life.

JORDAN LAMARK

JORDAN LAMARK

There is no doubt an opioid abuse problem in our nation. However, the answer is not to enact reactionary laws and restrictions that make it harder for patients with a legitimate need to receive their medication. The conversation about opioids has been focused on acute patients and those who have had surgery or an injury, but has neglected to mention the unintended victims of anti-opioid campaigns: chronic pain patients who will most likely need medication for the rest of their lives.

Neglected also is that most of the abuse of prescription opioids takes place outside of the doctor-patient relationship. The World Health Organization tells us the risk of dependence and diversion is low when opioids are prescribed for pain. Studies also show that physician prescribed opioids are not the primary source of diversion and that theft from the drug distribution chain is an important source of illicit pain medication.

The CDC, along with other organizations and federal and state governments, has overstepped its authority by releasing a set of guidelines for opioid prescribing. Although the guidelines do not prohibit the prescription of opioids, they have increased the complexity and effort involved in getting them. This has had the same effect as declaring them illegal. Most doctors that I’ve talked to flatly state that they don’t prescribe opioids anymore.

I recently saw a pain doctor at one of the best hospitals in the country and was told that their policy is to not prescribe opioids to non-cancer patients. When asked what I should do, since in my case other methods either have not worked or cannot be used due to side effects, the doctor said he did not have a suggestion and wished he could prescribe them for me, but was unable to.

Many patients are having their dosages reduced in response to the CDC guidelines, and some are left with the heart-wrenching prospect of having their medication completely cut off. Many are now being forced to undergo monthly drug tests in order to receive treatment, even when there is no reason to suspect abuse. Our criminal justice system treats suspects as “innocent until proven guilty,” but the same logic does not seem to apply in this case.

I have personally had a pharmacist at a major chain refuse to fill my prescription and lie about the reason why, and then make negative comments about it to my face. I have had several doctors express concerns about legal action and increased government interference in opioid prescription, and cite these as reasons for not prescribing.

One pain specialist gave me several reasons that doctors are now hesitant to prescribe opioids. Number one, of course, was public and government pressure, followed by the increased complexity of prescribing and the fear of losing his license.

Another reason cited was the lack of an “equation” to tell doctors what and how much to prescribe. I think that is a faulty argument. Psychiatric drugs, for example, do not have such an equation or rubric --that is left up to the doctor’s discretion, as it should be.

I have been denied coverage for a treatment because my condition was not on my insurance company’s list of those approved to receive the treatment. Someone who had never met me decided he or she knew better than my doctor (and I) what potentially life-saving treatment I could receive.

Doctors often suggest “alternative treatments” such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which is usually not covered by insurance; acupuncture, which is almost never covered; and physical therapy, which becomes very expensive even with insurance if you are going several times a week for months. Medical marijuana is not covered and is prohibitively expensive. These alternative therapies, while worth trying, do not help everyone.  ­

If the medical industry and government are really serious about promoting alternative, non-opioid therapies, then they should be made affordable. Continuing to say “opioids are bad” and promoting restrictive laws does not stop illicit drug use and only hurts those who need them. These decisions should not be made by insurance companies or the government, they should be up to the individual physician and patient.

I have a feeding tube that was surgically placed and has forever altered my body. I have an open wound that causes pain and infections. The surgery carried risk, the act of changing the tube every few months carries a risk, and the tube’s mere presence is a risk. And yet, it’s all worth the risk because it keeps me alive. My pain medication takes the life that the tube has saved and makes it a life worth saving.

The medical industry does not have to bow to public or political pressure. This is the time for doctors and patients to stand up and reject reactionary responses. Do not take away the only relief many of us have.

Jordan LaMark lives with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and comorbid conditions, including Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS) and gastroparesis, for which she has a permanent feeding tube.

Jordan is the founder of Digesting that Facts, a website about living with her various medical conditions that includes educational information and research articles.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us.  Send them to:  editor@PainNewsNetwork.org

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.