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.