Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Taking One for the Team

I got an H1N1 vaccination a couple days ago.  No jack-booted storm troopers forced me to, no public health bureaucrat ordered me to--I did it of my own free will (if such a thing truly exists).  In fact, I paid $10 for the privilege.

I'm not one who believes that the medical establishment has all the answers.  Traditional Western medicine is not very good at dealing with chronic pain, for example.  Western medicine has little to offer those who have the kinds of neuromuscular problems that can cause things like chronic pelvic pain syndrome--something I've experienced first-hand.  I've had to search outside the medical establishment to find effective treatment for chronic pain.

However, there are many conditions that almost everyone would admit that Western medicine can treat very effectively.  For example, I can't think of any of my friends in the community of alternative medicine who would not go to an emergency room for treatment of severe trauma.  Nearly everyone recognizes that an acupuncturist or Reiki practitioner is not going to do you much good if you have a dangerous arterial bleed.

But for reasons that escape me, there seems to be a lot of resistance to vaccination.  I am no fan of needles.  I would prefer that my tissues remain unpunctured.  Maybe the old country doctor I saw when I was a child is to blame.  Whenever he examined me, I'd always whimper, "Am I going to need a shot?" and he'd always reply, "Yeah, and it's going to hurt!"  And so it did.

It seems to me, though, that the practice of vaccination has been hugely beneficial to the human race in general.  It's one of the few Western medical technologies to propagate throughout the world, reaching even the poorest areas of the least developed nations.  Vaccination has eliminated smallpox.  It has prevented polio from crippling multitudes of children.  Or so I thought.

Recently, I was very surprised to learn that some in the anti-vaccination camp believe that the polio vaccine is a hoax.  I grew up in the 50s and had friends who were mildly affected by polio, who spent several years on crutches, hobbled by the effects of the disease.  After the polio vaccine became available, presto, there were no more crippled kids.  That's a subjective impression, not objective research.  But the denial of the efficacy of polio vaccination surprises me.  And there are web sites that claim that smallpox vaccination is a hoax, and even rabies vaccination.

I understand that vaccines can have side effects, sometimes very debilitating side effects, which affect a portion of those being vaccinated.  That's a fact that no one denies.  Almost any traditional medical treatment can have negative as well as positive results.  I know that the swine flu vaccine used in 1976 may have been associated with cases of Guillain-Barre paralysis.  Some people have allergic reactions to some vaccines.  Whenever I'm vaccinated, I almost always have a day where I feel achy and lethargic.  When I was a kid and got my polio injection--always just before my birthday, for some reason--I would be sick for a day or two after.

I also understand the concerns about thiomersal, the mercury compound used as a preservative in some vaccines.  Although there has been no proven link to autism, some people do believe there is one.  I'm a father, and I can empathize with parents who have reservations about vaccinating their children.  Thiomersal is being withdrawn from vaccines, at least in most first-world nations, so hopefully, this will be less of a concern in the future.

To my mind, the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks.  The percentage of people who develop serious side effects is very small.  When I am vaccinated against an easily communicable disease, I'm not only protecting my own health, I'm helping to protect the public health, the health of those around me, even those who choose not to be vaccinated.  By exposing myself to a slight risk, I benefit myself and everyone around me.  It's not like I'm throwing myself on a live grenade, but it's an altruistic act nonetheless.

The public health aspect of vaccination also seems to be another cause for concern among those who reject vaccination.  There seems to be a fear that vaccination will be mandated, part of a larger conspiracy to use the threat of a pandemic to control the populace.

We have been fortunate to not have any experience with a widespread outbreak of a virulent disease for some time, not since the 1918 influenza pandemic.  That pandemic had an estimated 10% to 20% mortality rate--somewhere between 3% and 6% of the entire human population died.  More than 500,000 U.S. citizens were killed by the disease.  In some places, there were not enough well people left to dig graves or take care of the sick.  I suspect that when a similar pandemic strikes again, concerns about coercion will take a back seat to public health needs, at least for the moment.

I often ask people I know who oppose vaccination whether they'd be vaccinated if they were bitten by a rabid animal.  While there have been reports of a handful of people who have survived rabies, rabies is, for all practical purposes, 100% lethal if the person bitten is not vaccinated in time.  And rabies appears to be a very unpleasant way to die.  Almost invariably, after some hemming and hawing, the people I ask reply that, yes, they would be vaccinated.  So, it seems to me that, even among those who oppose vaccination, there is some recognition of its efficacy, despite all the claims about vaccination being a hoax.

I have run across one person who claims that she would reject the rabies vaccine.  This boggles my mind!  I hope that she never has to put herself to the test.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tooth and Consequences

About nine years ago, I had my first and, so far, only, root canal.  Of course, beforehand, I had to hear everyone's horror stories.  But I was pretty sure that, compared to my early experiences with dentistry, the procedure would be a walk in the park.  When I was a boy in rural Iowa, my old country dentist drilled without administering novocaine!  I was relieved that the root canal was anticlimactic.  As expected, the procedure went smoothly, and I had very little pain.  It took some trial and error to get what felt like a pretty good fit for the crown.  But eventually all seemed well.  The tooth occasionally felt a little odd, but not painful.

But earlier this year, I began to notice increasing pain in my jaw when I bit down on the tooth.  I tried to chew on the opposite side of my mouth, but whenever I accidentally bit down on the tooth, a stabbing, hot, agonizing pain would shoot up into my cheek, as if someone were jamming a red-hot ice pick up through my molar and into my eye socket--or as if my old country dentist were drilling my molar again.  The pain would last for a couple of hours.  I finally had to admit to myself that I needed to have the tooth examined.

My dentist x-rayed the tooth and saw what seemed to him to be a little bit of swelling between the root and the socket, so he referred me to a periodontist.  But the periodontist saw nothing unusual in the x-rays.  He said he could redo the root canal and it might relieve the pain--or it might not.  Back home, I decided I didn't want to undergo another root canal if there was little certainty of a good outcome.  I returned to my dentist and asked him to smooth down my crown to try to get a better fit.  He did, and I had some relief for a few weeks.  But then the pain came back.

I was stuck.  I was facing the prospect of having to live with increasingly excruciating pain, without any hope of an effective treatment.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, this was a very familiar situation.  A few years ago, I was diagnosed with chronic pelvic pain syndrome--constant untreatable pain in the hips and groin and low back.  Thrown back on my own resources, I found ways of working with the condition that eventually resulted in my being able once again to be fully active without pain.  I knew from personal experience that undiagnosable, untreatable chronic pain can be workable.  So I sat down and began to puzzle through this tooth pain.

I used my mindfulness training to try to avoid chewing on the affected side, and to stay with the pain when I did mistakenly bite down on the tooth.  As I sat with the pain, I tried to release any thoughts it spawned and to relax into the physical sensations.  I gradually came to see that part of the pain involved muscle tension in my jaw and face.  I tried to be mindful of this tension, even when I wasn't in pain.  I soon saw that this tension was the result of a mistaken response to something my Alexander Technique teacher had tried to teach me.

I've been seeing my Alexander Technique teacher for nearly two years now.  She's been helping me recognize and release places where I habitually hold tension in my body.  My pelvic pain condition has melted away, and my sense of well-being and ease has increased.  In the course of her lessons, she pointed out that I tense the muscles that make my lips thin.  I responded by trying to force my lips to purse out more than they had, instead of trying to relax my facial muscles.  This increased muscular tension in the face and jaw was what seemed to be associated with my tooth pain.

I massaged my jaw muscles and used the tools I'd learned from my Alexander Technique teacher to relax my face and jaw.  The result was miraculous!  The pain melted away, to the point where now, I can bite down on my molar and only occasionally feel a little, short-lived twinge.  I remembered reading something about tooth pain in Clair Davies's book, The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook.  I looked it up, and sure enough, Davies wrote that trigger points in the jaw muscles can cause sensitivity in the teeth.

I'm increasingly amazed at the interplay among my mind, body and emotions.  Incidents like this are like windows into the connections among these aspects of self.  I'd rather not have had to deal with chronic pain, but I have to admit that it's given me new insights and opened new possibilities of health and well-being.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The NASCARization of Politics

I have a simple two-part solution for campaign finance reform here in the United States. First, remove all limits on campaign spending. Second, require that all elected officials, and all candidates for elected office, wear the logos or some other insignia that identifies each major organizational donor to their campaign.

Eliminating limits on campaign finances conforms with Buckley v. Valeo,
the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision that holds that campaign donations are a form of speech and thus cannot be limited or regulated. Requiring office holders and seekers to wear logos makes good use of the growing cultural trend to identify with brand names and symbols. The resulting openness and transparency should make for better politics, or at least, great entertainment. Politics, sports, entertainment and business continue to merge into one gigantic amorphous mass. My idea is just one more stage in this grand fusion.

This win-win-win idea simply recognizes reality. Since 1976, Buckley v. Valeo has stymied efforts to reign in campaign finances. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, life in the U.S. has become more commercialized over the ensuing decades. Corporate logos appear everywhere now. People walk down the street wearing T-shirts and jackets proudly proclaiming their allegiance to Nike, Ford, Budweiser, and on and on. Stadiums and arenas are no longer named after heroic sports figures, but instead wear the names of Qualcomm, Target, Conseco, et al. Even colleges and universities are beginning to succumb to the trend. The University of Houston has an Enron Teaching Award. My own employer, The University of Iowa, recently considered naming their College of Public Health after the Wellmark Foundation, which is affiliated with Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa.

My admittedly brilliant idea will solve all our campaign finance problems, and I'm sure it will prove to be extremely popular. Politicians will love it, because it will do away with all those pesky campaign finance laws they have to follow. They'll finally be able to receive unlimited amounts of cash without the risk of penalty (not that there was ever much risk of penalty to begin with). The general population will love it because we Americans love to identify with large, extremely wealthy organizations. We proudly wear logos on our clothes, plaster them on our cars, hoist them above our sports arenas and even our institutions of higher learning. Organizations will love it because not only will they continue to be able to use political donations to exert influence--they'll also be able to leverage their donations to market themselves.

All those pickup decals showing Calvin peeing on a Ford-Chevy-Dodge logo (pick one) will now have greater political significance. As the idea takes hold and our elected officicals begin to look more and more like NASCAR drivers, I look forward to the day when I can turn to C-SPAN and watch a senator emblazoned with the Microsoft logo respond to a senator sporting an Apple emblem. I can only hope that some day, in the halls of Congress, we will finally hear the political debate that epitomizes our current system: "Less filling!" "Tastes great!"

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I Didn't Read the News Today, Oh Boy!

I have a confession to make: I've quit the news--at least the international and national news. I have stopped actively looking for and reading news online, viewing the news on television, listening to the news on the radio. I have turned on, tuned in and dropped out.

No, that does not mean that I have no knowledge about what's going on right now. I know about the election in Iran, the Metroliner wreck in Washington, the Obama administration's health care initiative. The news is a difficult thing to escape. It pops up everywhere. And I have not quit the local news--at least, I have not quit the less strident, less lurid local news outlets. But I have quit reading blogs, quit receiving emailed news bulletins, quit surfing over to the major mainstream web sites.

What brought me to this point? Why did I unplug? Simple observation. I realized that on days when for one reason or another I hadn't consumed the news, I felt better. I slept better at night. I felt much calmer and more focused. I slowed down. I listened more attentively. I was less combative. So, I began experimenting, deliberately avoiding the news for a day or two, seeing how I felt, then immersing myself in the news again and observing my reaction. The length of time I went without news gradually lengthened, until finally, I simply stopped reading the news altogether.

I could speculate about why disconnecting from the news would have an effect on me. A lot of news stories are framed in a way that invites a strong emotional reaction but actually have little direct bearing on my day-to-day life. The most complex and nuanced issues are presented in a dumbed-down, polarizing manner that invites me to choose a side and fight. Equanimity and compassion are not the realm of the news media. But whatever the reason, not reading the news has had a positive effect.

So I invite you to try unplugging, too. Take a day off. The world will continue to spin without us. Governments and families and athletes and movie stars and armies and the police and terrorists and religions will all continue to function (or maybe dysfunction?) without our having to form an opinion about their every action. And by the end of the day, maybe you'll find that you feel better for having disconnected.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Muscle De Jour

The muscle of the day is: the infraspinatus! I worked it with the tennis ball this morning, and wow, it felt so good! I can usually tell when I'm working an active trigger point. The pressure reproduces some of the pain, along with a kind of energetic rush or tingling sensation.

I'm coming out of my latest step back, in the two-steps-forward-one-step-back rhythm of my dance with chronic pain. I've been through this cycle so many times that now I do not become too anxious or upset when the downward swing happens. I know that I will pull through, and undoubtedly, I'll learn something valuable in the process.

This latest episode started the same day that I had a fantastic session with Rachelle, my ease of movement therapist. I'd felt incredibly light and loose that morning, on top of the world. But that afternoon, my boss handed me an assignment that boiled down to "justify your position." Times are tough economically here at the U, as elsewhere, doubly so because of the flood damage. As I worked on the assignment, I could feel the tension tightening my back like a guitar string. The pain also fed back into the tension. Every twinge seemed to birth a litter of anxious thoughts and emotions. By the end of the day, the last trace of the morning's bliss had evaporated.

Over the next several days, the situation worsened. The pain and tension affected my stretching routine. Releasing muscles was nearly impossible. I felt a strong desire to pull against the already too-tight muscles, which aggravated the pain whenever I mindlessly gave in to the urge. I could tell that a new stretch Rachelle had suggested was triggering something in my left shoulder that sent waves of tension outward, into my low back and hip. I knew I would have to back off, but easing up proved to be a struggle against a rising sense of failure.

Throughout my descent, I managed to continue my mindfulness practice, staying with all the sensations and emotions and thoughts as best I could. I continued practicing the inhibiting and directing I'd learned from the Alexander Technique. I knew that, as bad as I felt, I still felt much better than I had on my good days a couple years ago. And this time, I was able to consciously see what was going on during the entire episode, what had triggered it, what made it worse, what made it better.

Gradually, I found my way into a less painful, more relaxed state. And now, I have more insight into my condition, more confidence that I can work with it and can continue toward wholeness. And one of the good things that came from this latest bout with pain is the infraspinatus. I dug out my trigger point therapy workbook, got on the floor with my tennis ball, and experimented with my shoulder muscles, and now I know that the shoulder pain I've been living with for years can aggravate pain in my low back and into my hip, and I know how to treat it.

I know how to treat it for the moment, anyway. Dealing with chronic pain is like playing whack-a-mole. I've learned that if I let myself think that I've found the one true cause of my pain, the one thing that I can fix and make myself all better, that is when the trouble starts. The key for me has been to continue to listen to my body, continue to let it talk to me, and not let my mind get in the way. My mind wants to diagnose and cure, but chronic pain does not work that way, and in fact, the mind's need to be in charge and to fix things can lead to worse pain, not less.

So, the muscle de jour is the infraspinatus. It feels so good working with it. But it's just the muscle of the day. There will be another tomorrow.