Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Comfortably Numb

When I interviewed Woody last summer, she was 92, and still living alone in her own country home. Woody was amazingly sharp and spry. She also had an amazing head of hair. She still drives, but walking is becoming more difficult. She has macular degeneration, some kidney troubles, and hearing loss -- minimal problems for a person her age. Woody was diagnosed with lupus in the early 1950s. "I was in my forties then. I had fluid in the lungs. I was getting swelling. My hands would swell up, my ears... If I bent over, it felt like my chest was full of oil.

At that time in the 50s there wasn’t much known about lupus, "but I had a good diagnostician. He said I had either syphilis or lupus. How could I have syphilis!" Woody said laughing.

"They put me on prednisone at that time, and I’ve been on it ever since."

Unfortunately, the lupus also caused hair loss. That amazing hair was a wig. The fibromylagia diagnosis was not made until 1993. "I had an accident where I had a compound fracture in my wrist and had to have hand therapy.

I get spasmodic pain. It could be anywhere. It could be my toe, the top of my hand, or my finger. It lasts maybe 30 seconds or more and then it’ll go away. It’s strange. The pain doesn’t stay. It’s nothing that requires pain medications.

I told my hand therapist about this and she says it sounds to me like you have fibromyalgia. She printed out information on fibromyalgia and gave it to me. I did have the symptoms, so I assumed that’s what I’ve got."

Woody is a strong woman both in constitution and personality. Although fibro often goes hand-in-hand with lupus, the assumption of fibro and its symptoms puzzles me. In the 90s, fibro was barely known, and not readily accepted by the medical community.

According to Woody, "I don't have much pain. The fatigue is probably a combination of the fibro and lupus. I take vitamins and I follow health rules. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I had four hours of sleep last night so when I came home from church I was a little tired. But sometimes I can overcome it without too much trouble. It’s normal, at least compared to what some people go through. I don’t suffer too much."

Whether the fibro was a correct diagnosis, I couldn't say. Woody accepted the therapist's suggestion, and never did much more about it. Out of curiosity she has attended some meetings on fibro. It was difficult to get information out of Woody because she minimize her symptoms. Were her symptoms as minor as she makes them out to be or was the fibro a misdiagnosis. After all, she was in her 70s when the therapist suggested that was the problem. Aches and pains are pretty commonplace at that age.

I've noticed that it's not uncommon for people of her generation to minimize pain in people. The people I know who are 80 and older don't make too much of their pain. My 92 year old neighbor still plays golf nearly daily. My father who is in his 80s never complains about pain. He had a large abcess that required surgery, and we never knew about it until he was in septic shock. He broke his nose recently and claimed it didn't bother him much. Another neighbor who is close to 80 and a cancer survivor, still plows, cuts lawns, farms, and grooms at the local ski slope.

Of course there are always people who complain about every little thing, regardless of their age, but are we less tough than they were? Nowadays, everything you hear on drug commercials is about pain management. U.S. medicine focuses quite a bit on pain management.

It seems like everyone takes pills for every little complaint. Are we being made to believe that it is abnormal to feel pain? Years ago doctors were hesitant to prescribe narcotics for fear of addiction. Now they dole them out like candy. No wonder there is so much prescription drug abuse.

If pain is keeping you from doing normal everyday tasks like dressing or washing yourself, then you probably need some help. But is it really necessary to pop some Advil before competing in a sport? Despite the extreme activities that more and more people seem attracted to these days, we also seem to want to do these activities without feeling a thing. It's hard to know whether we are less tough or not.  Maybe our drugs of choice have just changed. A century ago opium used to be readily available in the form of laudanum.

" Innumerable Victorian women were prescribed the drug for relief of menstrual cramps and vague aches and used it to achieve the pallid complexion associated with tuberculosis (frailty and paleness were particularly prized in females at the time)."

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