Doctor, doctor …

February 14, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Posted in arthrits, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, joint pai, Me, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | 1 Comment
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I suppose I must try to be more fair to my poor beleaguered doctor. There I was complaining the other day that the doctors don’t think my ‘migraines’ are related to my ‘shoulder pain’, and things were getting worse and worse. My shoulder pain was getting to the point where I was waking up many times a night because of it, and the headaches were getting worse too, so I thought better give it another shot. So I finally got the appointment with my GP – who has referred me for physio for my shoulder, as I’d hoped she would – and I said, ‘You know – I’m convinced these migraines I keep getting are related to my shoulder pain.’ I got the usual quizzical look … and then inspiration struck. ‘The thing is,’ I added, ‘it’s not actually shoulder pain, and … erm … I don’t think they’re actually migraines!’

Well, unsurprisingly that did put a rather different complexion on the matter. What I tend to refer to as ‘shoulder pain’ is actually pain the acromoclavicular joint (try spelling that after a glass of wine) – which is the joint between the collar bone and the front part of the arm, so not really the shoulder at all. And although the headache I mentioned in that last post was definitely a classic migraine, most of the headaches I’ve had recently haven’t been. They have been one-sided, but instead of being behind the eye they very much feel like they’re outside the skull, and if I touch my scalp on the painful side it’s really tender. They’re just as painful and debilitating as migraines but without any visual disturbance or sickness. When I managed to explain all that (and I don’t know really why I hadn’t managed to do so in the past!), she thought it was highly likely that the two were in fact related. Apparently headaches like the one I just described are common with neck pain, and my acromoclavicular joint pain is probably actually closer to neck than shoulder pain.

So a mystery solved, one less medical professional to feel frustrated and irritable with, and a referral to physio. All in all a very positive outcome to a visit to the doctor!

End of the line for physio?

June 26, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Posted in arthrits, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, joint pai, fibromyalgia, Me, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | 2 Comments
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OK, here’s the thing – the geniuses at my local NHS physo department (or should that be genii?) have decreed that in order to ‘be in line with the private sector’ they will only give any patient a maximum of six appointments before they kick them out. (The last three words are, of course, my terminology and not theirs!)

I asked Lovely Physio how this was ‘in line with the private sector’, as I had had to have quite a bit of private treatment before I got into the NHS programme and oddly enough they hadn’t been anxious to see the back of me after six appointments. No surprise there – I was paying them. Why would they want to be shot of me? She said something like, ‘I have no idea, but that’s how they’re presenting it to us!’

I suspect the idea is that by ignoring the fact that there are people with chronic conditions who can benefit enormously from regular therapy and pretending that everyone they see can be ‘cured’ in six appointments, they can massage their figures by getting the waiting list down from the current five weeks to a more ‘in line with the private sector’ one to three weeks.

The complexity of the system emerges from the fact that it’s general practitioner budget that pay for this treatment, but once you were being treated, until now, it was up to each physio to decide when and if to discharge. The GPs had little or no say, but they had to pay. So the idea is that you now have your maximum of six appointments and then go back to the GP if you feel you need to still see a physio, to get re-referred, as I mentioned in the previous post. The GP can, of course, say no. I suspect if I see the one that knows me she would say yes … we’ll have to wait and see, but even if she does we’re looking at a five-week waiting list right now.

One silver lining in the cloud – they have an SOS system whereby if I need to see my physio in the next couple of months I can phone and make an appointment saying I’m on the ‘SOS list’. I can then go in under that and have maybe six appointments then before getting kicked out! Hopefully I won’t need to see her in the next two months, but last time I thought that I only lasted three weeks …

Unfortunately I feel I have very little fight in me at the moment – I don’t know if that might be something to do with the thyroid issues i might or might not have, but that’s the way it is!

Throwing thyroid into the mix

June 15, 2010 at 9:10 pm | Posted in Me, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | 5 Comments
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I went for monthly MTX blood tests today and remembered to ask if the thyroid results were normal – I’d assumed they were, since no one at the surgery had bothered to contact me. They weren’t.

Having said that, they weren’t all that abnormal either, so what are we doing about it? In their case nothing as yet, in my case getting rather confused …and cold …and tired … and achy … but mostly just confused. Until I went in and asked for the results I thought a thyroid test was just that, one test, one answer – OK, not OK, whatever. But no … it turns out there’s a test for thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) which is produced by the pituitary gland and stimulates thyroxine production from the thyroid gland. Then there’s tests for the two types of hormone the thyroid gland itself produces, thyroxine (T4) and the other one whose name I can’t remember (T3). Counter-intuitively, if you have lots of TSH sloshing about it means your thyroid might be UNDER-active, because you have to produce a lot of TSH to get the thyroid to do anything at all. If you have loads of T3 and/or T4 (produced by the thyroid gland itself) then you obviously have an overactive thyroid as the thyroid is producing loads of the stuff. If you have very little then clearly you have an under-active thyroid.

Symptoms of the latter include feeling cold when it isn’t (box ticked), weight gain or difficulty in losing weight (box ticked), muscle aches (box ticked), abnormal menstrual cycles (oh yeaaaah!), decreased libido (what’s libido again, somebody?), irritability (well … erm … guilty) and memory loss (not sure, can’t remember). However, my levels of T-whatever – not sure if they tested for T3, T4 or both, are in the normal range. My level of TSH though is just outside the normal range – just a smidge too high. As a consequence the docs have decided to wait and see. I can totally understand the logic of this – apparently it does fluctuate and it’s not as if it’s wildly off the scale, so try again in another month and see if it’s still high, and if the levels of T-whatsit have decreased or not.

Really – I can totally understand that – but it’s just sooooo frustrating, as I sit here grumpily shivering, with period pains! (Oh yeah, and a flare just to increase the fun.)

One interesting thing – apparently the most common cause of hypothyroidism (under-active thyroid) is an autoimmune problem. Surprise, surprise!

As to the confusion – I’ve just about got it straight in my head that there are all these tests and roughly what they’re for, but nowhere can I find clear guidance as to what is and isn’t normal range for any of these tests – it seems that for TSH it used to be considered that up to 5.5 was OK, now they reckon about 4.5, or maybe 3.5, or sometimes 2 depending on who you ask, and apparently some authorities in the UK reckon up to 10 is fine! I’m just going to go off and find a nice sandpit to bury my head in for the next month.

No improvement in patient access to RA treatment in seven years

February 23, 2010 at 2:25 pm | Posted in arthrits, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, joint pai, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | 2 Comments
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According to the Management in Practice website , which is a website for GP practice managers, the delay in getting patients proper rheumatoid arthritis treatment is the same as it was seven years ago. I suppose we should be grateful it hasn’t got worse!

Worryingly, to my mind, they say, “The Commons Public Accounts Committee has revealed that patients could suffer damage to their heart and lungs if access to treatment is delayed.” Well I have two things to say on that point. Firstly it’s not exactly a ‘revelation’ by the Commons Public Accounts Committee, but that’s more of a personal gripe about writing style than anything. More fundamentally there appears to be no recognition that patients could suffer permanent joint damage and a drastic reduction of quality of life if access to treatment is delayed. It’s as though ‘heart’ is the magic buzzword – if you put ‘heart’ in your article, at least when it comes to GPs who are forced to be target driven and probably have a big government target about reducing heart disease right now, then people might take action!

Mind you, they say that the average number of visits to a GP is four, before a patient is referred on to a specialist, and blame this on a lack of GP training. I would have thought that wasn’t soooo bad. It is hard to diagnose. It does vary enormously between patients. And it is possible to show symptoms that appear to be RA and then disappear – it happened to a good friend of mine. So I would have thought that an average of three visits (maybe not four) and attempts at less drastic treatment like ‘take Neurofen’ would not be unreasonable. I was very lucky – I had two visits before my referral and the GP spotted immediately that it might be RA and organised a blood test on the first visit. However if I’d been seronegative (negative RF test) then I shudder to think how long it might have taken!

Apparently, according to the same article on the same Commons report, “GPs receive on average only two hours of teaching on musculoskeletal conditions during their training, including minimal coverage of inflammatory arthritis.” I have to say I find that hard to believe, but if it’s true then it’s pretty scary, and it might explain why it’s taking 6-9 months to get people referred.

They also say that there’s a lack of awareness among the public of what symptoms to look for. I’m sure that’s true, and that does stop people going to pester their doctor when they have intermittent pain, but I suspect another thing that stops people going to see their GP is the difficulty in getting an appointment in the first place! But that’s another story for another post on another day …

I see trouble ahead (but then I usually do, don’t I?)

February 3, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Posted in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | Leave a comment
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Apparently a simple blood test could predict RA years before symptoms appear. Now this could be a great thing – it could mean that in families where RA is known to be prevalent doctors could test those not yet showing symptoms and then keep a special eye on anyone who tests positive, to make sure they’re diagnosed as soon as symptoms start to appear, and treated accordingly. (I say in families where RA is prevalent because I can’t see it becoming a standard test that everyone receives, like TB used to be in this country.)

However, I can also see problems. One problem is that any test can be overly relied upon. I’d put money on it that if they’d tested me I would have come back negative, since my symptoms even now are so mild and my RF test result was so low (although positive … just…) Another problem is one that rears its ugly head almost any time such tests are mentioned … although oddly The Telegraph seem to have missed a trick this time in not mentioning it. It’s not great from a health insurance point of view, is it? Or rather it’s fantastic from a health insurers point of view. They just need to insist anyone they take on is tested first – if you’re positive, ‘We’ll insure you for anything except rheumatoid arthritis …’ Can’t you just see this one coming?

NICE fiddles while RA burns a hole in the economy and our joints

January 30, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Posted in arthrits, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, joint pai, Me, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | 5 Comments
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I got my shiny new NRAS magazine through the post today. Great to see an article by Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy in there! Well done RA Guy! But there’s always something in there to get me aeriated, and the first magazine of 2010 was no exception!

Interesting also to see a two-page spread on the ‘European Fit for Work Report’. Frankly, I’m not sure there were that many surprises in there, although I was a bit surprised at the number of people who become ‘work disabled’. Apparently 40% leave work altogether within 5 years of diagnosis, which is not happy reading. However, it appears that the main reason for this is people being diagnosed and treated too late or incorrectly. The report recommended ‘new and more inclusive methods to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of treating musculo-skeletal diseases in particular; one that considers more than the up-front costs of medical expenditure and incorporates wider social and economic factors.’ No kidding. In other words, this report recommends doing exactly what NICE doesn’t do. The article goes on to say that ‘NICE in the UK has already begun such a deliberation, although no decision has been reached to date.’ No surprise there then!

Now, my honorable friends, please turn to page 12 of your NRAS magazine. Don’t have one? Not to worry – here’s the headline: ‘People on Enbrel stay in work longer’. It goes on to state that a 500-person study (the COMET study if anyone’s inclined to look it up) showed that those with active early RA were three times less likely to stop working if treated with MTX and Enbrel, rather than MTX alone. Absenteeism was also reduced by almost 50% for those on the combination therapy. But here’s the rub – NICE won’t allow anyone to start on a combination therapy like this until they have been proved unresponsive to at least two other DMARDS including methotrexate … so when does early stop being early? It takes, I would think from my own experience, at least six months to show that a DMARD is not working for you, because it can take them that long to start working. So you’re diagnosed (probably not immediately), you’re given a DMARD if you’re lucky, perhaps hydroxychloroquine, for six months; it doesn’t work. You try MTX (either on its own or in combination with HCQ) for another six months. That doesn’t work either. You’ve now been diagnosed for at least a year. Is this still early enough to count for this study? Perhaps it is. If so, fair enough. If not then are NICE ruining people’s chances of staying healthy yet again. I don’t know the answer – I just pose the question.

And finally to a little article by a brave lady called Jean Burke, who works with NICE to provide a patient viewpoint in their deliberations. Rather her than me but I am full of admiration. Apparently she was asked by a member of an appraisal committee ‘Surely a twenty percent increase in quality of life isn’t worth bothering about?’ Well, I suppose that’s why they need the patient viewpoint. If you’re reading this blog as someone with RA I imagine you’ll see it her way immediately; I know I did. She points out that if the extra 20% means she can make a cup of tea in the morning, go to work or walk to the shops then yes, it’s worth it!

So long as NICE remains in its ivory tower, untouched by all these deliberations about the socioeconomic effects of diseases and so on, I simply cannot see how the system can ever work effectively.

The hidden costs of even mild R.A.

January 15, 2010 at 11:11 am | Posted in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | 6 Comments
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I’m part of the Norfolk Arthritis Register (NOAR) study, which is an epidemiological study around rheumatoid arthritis. They look into all sorts of things, physical, mental and social, that affect R.A. patients, from an epidemiological standpoint – i.e. they look at lots of us and then see what the statistics say. In spite of the old ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’ quote, they produce some very interesting results.

One of the bits of research they did, before I was involved, was around the hidden costs of R.A. and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Even mild R.A. leads to an extraordinary amount of hidden costs, even in this country with our ‘free healthcare’. I’m trying to compile a list of those hidden costs for someone like me with mild R.A. – I’d be interested in any additions people might think of, so please comment if any come to mind! Later on, when I have the list as complete as I can make it, I’m going to try and price it. I think that might be quite frightening.

Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • Over the counter medications such as paracetamol, stomach settlers etc. not prescribed by the doc
  • Time off work due to sickness
  • Time of work to attend hospital appointments (consultant, nurse, physio, OT etc.)
  • Travel costs to attend hospital, since I live in a rural area and hospitals are 30 miles for consultant/nurse and ten miles or so for OT/physio.
  • Aids such as jar openers, tin openers etc. (Some of these are free through OT services, some aren’t.) I have compression gloves from OT for instance, but they’re starting to get a bit baggy/stretchy after less than a week, so I might invest in some good quality ones!
  • An occasional one only, but cost of trips etc. cancelled due to a flare!

I’m sure there are more – will add them as I think of them or as people comment with suggestions! Some, like cost of transport because one can’t drive, I haven’t included because they haven’t actually happened to me so far!

G.P. Practice – what’s gone wrong in this country

January 6, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Posted in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | 1 Comment
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As usual, there’s something I’ve been trying and failing to put into words for ages, only to find that someone has done it very elegantly for me already! I’m going to copy it to our local practice manager (who is also a friend.)

I am not a fan of the Daily Mail, but I stumbled across an ‘Ask The Doctor’ article in their online paper because it was about R.A. Tagged onto the bottom of the article is this, which I’m going to quote in full, because it says everything I’ve been wanting to say for ages about continuity of care etc. (I’m not sure about the copyright implications here but I’m giving full reference to the original article by Dr Martin Scurr in the Mail Online (Wed Jan 6th), so hopefully it’s OK!

By the way… There was recently a conference organised by the manufacturers of over-the-counter medicines. Many of the great and the good attended – shadow health minister Mark Simmonds, and some of the leading lights from the Royal College of GPs.
The theme of the meeting was to change the way the public thinks about minor illness. There is a push to dissuade patients from consulting their doctors for what might seem to be small ailments, and to encourage self-diagnosis and treatment. It’s all about saving money.
But the involvement of the hallowed seniors of my profession – in what looks rather like a sales drive for those peddling over-the-counter medicines – has set me thinking.
In medicine, no complaint is defined as minor until it has been thought about, in context, with informed judgment. I was always taught that general practice is about the ongoing observation of someone’s health over a lifetime. A lot of apparently disconnected elements might add up to quite a lot.
Yes, I believe in personal responsibility for health – doctors are only guides on a rocky path. But now the leaders in our profession seem to be saying it’s time for patients to look after themselves – implying that doctors have created a culture of dependency. It’s just not so. The problem with academics and medical politicos is that most of them occupy those lofty positions because they opted out of full-time work at the coal face.
How many patients with acid reflux have Barrett’s oesophagus, which can lead to cancer? How many with indigestion have got helicobacter infection, which can lead to stomach cancer? And yet they are expected to go to the chemist. We are supposed to be entering a new decade, not heading back to the last century. We must retain our devotion to patients as guides on that rocky path.

Read more:

I actually disagree about it being driven by the over-the-counter drug companies. I think it’s driven by the fact that there aren’t enough GPs to see the patients. Our practice has something like eight GPs for 20,000 registered patients, and although there are some patients registered that they never see (because they’re healthy) we have a high elderly population here and the practice is very over-stretched, but there’s no more funding available; so the government thinks the answer is to send us all into the chemist for an aspirin.

Physiotherapy – what’s it all about?

November 9, 2009 at 3:03 pm | Posted in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | 2 Comments
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Wren posted a comment asking about physio and I thought it might get a bit long-winded for a comment answer, so I’m making a post out of it!

This was Wren’s comment – sorry Wren, just realised that this answer is going to come a bit too late for your appointment! “On another subject: How often do you see your physio (physical therapist)? What do you do at the appointments? Are there special exercises? I’m curious because I keep reading of others having PTs they go to frequently, but this is something that I’ve never done, or even had suggested by my doc. I’m seeing him on Saturday morning, and I plan to ask about it, but in the meantime, how does this work for you?”

I personally see my physio every two weeks at the moment, but that’s a timing that we decided between us and it’s changed over the months I’ve been seeing her. I started seeing her weekly when things were really bad and we’ve moved on to two weekly. We tried three-weekly but that didn’t work out – by the time I saw her after three weeks my shoulders were in agony!

There are indeed special exercises, but again they’re entirely individual to each patient. I think it’s fair to say that generally you don’t do any exercises during a flare, reduced exercises during a “fizzle” (if you have fizzles, as I do!) and you try really hard to do them when things are fine, but frequently forget! Luckily I have a very understanding physio (this is afterall the woman who recommended a year’s supply of cake, but she says I’m not allowed to post that story!!) and she appreciates that it’s hard to remember to do the exercises when things are good!

What we do at the appointments is 1) Talk through how I’ve been over the last couple of weeks since I’ve seen her 2) Decide what needs doing this time 3) Do it. Usually, what needs doing is either ultrasound on my knee(s) or ultrasound on my neck and shoulder(s) or both. Again, I’m lucky to have such a flexible and understanding physio. By the time I got to see her, I’d been seeing another physio privately for months. Long story – see here and we’d established that ultrasound works for me. Again, it’s a very personal thing. Some people find acupuncture fantastic, especially, apparently, for knees – I don’t. Some people find ultrasound completely useless – I don’t.

If there’s a different joint giving me problems we’ll talk through that and discuss if there are any exercises that might help, or whether ultrasound, TENS etc. might help.

I have a whole selection of exercises that I should do regularly for my neck, shoulders and knee, and a bunch of others to ease morning stiffness in other parts of me. The knee, neck and shoulder exercises are more to strengthen the muscles in those parts, so that they can do a better job of supporting the joints, rather than to actually do anything to the joints themselves.

The attitude of the nurse practitioners is ‘use it or lose it’, so the consensus seems to be that the more you exercise (within limits), the better. Not being the world’s most active person the only time I’m likely to overdo those limits is when I’m having a flare (where minimal exercise is fine) or if I’m doing crochet, embroidery etc. and don’t want to stop although my hands hurt!

I hope this helps explain the whole physiotherapy/physical therapy thing a bit, but it is, I stress again, only my own very personal viewpoint, and I know that every physio is different (because I’ve seen at least five over the years) and every patient is different. I reckon if you find a physio that suits you it can only help, so why not give it a try?

Three Golden Rules for Potential GPs

October 29, 2009 at 10:01 pm | Posted in Me, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | 1 Comment
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1. Don’t become a GP if you have the personality of a lettuce.
2. Remember that it’s probably going to get pretty boring by Thursday afternoon – loads and loads of six-minute appointments seeing snotty little people who should have stayed at home – but it’s part of YOUR JOB NOT TO SHOW HOW BORED YOU ARE!
3. When examining a patient it might be helpful to say things like ‘I’m just going to feel your neck for glands’. Otherwise you may one day find yourself pinned to the wall at the back of the surgery by an angry young man who thought you were trying to strangle him.

Yes, you guessed it – I just saw a GP I didn’t really take to. And, as you might also have guessed, I’ve gone down with a stonking cold, probably courtesy of hubby, although mine is NOT flu. (No, I’m not suggesting he’s had ‘man flu’ – he had a temperature of 102 for two days; but I haven’t had a temperature at all.) It went with an equally stonking sore throat. When I looked in the mirror (as you do … don’t you? Well I do), I could see little red wheals right across my throat. When the GP looked he said he couldn’t see anything. Hmm, that’ll be because my tongue was in the way I expect. However, as he’d already decided to give me antibiotics given the fact I was on MTX for the R.A., and as we had had an instant personality clash and I wanted to get out of there a.s.a.p. I didn’t push the point.

So – all the usual drugs plus paracetamol, sudafed, antibiotics (third lot in a month I think). I’m heartily sick of all these drugs … but then again, the MTX is WORKING, so who am I to complain?

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