Rheumatology: Pain, Joints, and Autoimmunity

I just finished my final elective of medical school. I chose Rheumatology because I have such a strong genetic tendency towards this class of diseases, and because it was something I felt under-educated about heading into Internal Medicine.

Rheum itself means “a watery fluid that collects in or drips from the nose or eyes.” Whereas rheumatism is “any disease marked by inflammation and pain in the joints, muscles, or fibrous tissue, especially rheumatoid arthritis” according to online dictionaries. Clearly these two do not match up? Although perhaps one could argue it is the “watery fluid” of the joints that is attacked by immune system dysregulation in most of these conditions, resulting in pain, inflammation and joint destruction. Most of these conditions are also multisystemic, affecting the heart, lungs, kidneys, eyes, skin and more. The umbrella of rheumatology is large: conditions I saw in clinic included rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, scleroderma, psoriatic arthritis, polymyositis and dermatomyositis, pseudogout, gout, and polymyalgia rheumatica. There are of course more that I did not witness.

A large part of patient management involves managing and regulating pain. Opioids are now recognized as crutches inhibiting recovery for many people with long term pain rather than panaceas. Dr Clauw, a pain specialist from Michigan explains this way better than I could, and also addresses several prescription and over the counter medications as well as lifestyle management techniques for living your best life with chronic pain. Watch this YouTube video now, or listen to it while you drive: https://youtu.be/B0EhNajqkdU 

One conversation that came up several times was the use of topicals for pain. Many folks cannot take ibuprofen for pain due to stomach or kidney disease, or are already on long term therapy with prescription strength NSAIDS and still have pain. Voltarin, a topical NSAID was prescribed regularly, specifically for osteoarthritic pain at the base of the thumb with good success.

Many patients use CBD preparations for consistent pain reduction. Some people call cannabiboids “opioid sparing medications” as people can reduce the amount of narcotics needed on a daily basis with the concurrent use of CBD products. The doctors I was working with did not specifically endorse nor did they advise against medical marijuana as Maine is a state where purchase and possession is legal with certification. However, they did support individuals trying topical marijuana preparations of their own initiative for pain management.

The biochemistry of cannabinoids is super interesting if you are into psychoneuroimmunology. This recent article from Naturopathic Doctor News and Review does a pretty good job of outlining the basics of CBD oil as well as some of its politics in reference to mental health. Its use in pain management is multifactoral. There are two main cannabinoid receptors in the human body both of which are relevant to rheumatology and management of chronic inflammatory, neuropathic and mechanical pain. CB1 receptors are found throughout the brain and body and are responsible for most of the psychotropic effects; they are also found on osteocytes (bone) and chondrocytes (cartilage). CB2 receptors are primarily on immune cells  as well as osteo and chondrocytes. The underlying physiology is complex and still being researched extensively but one thing is clear: cannabis-based medications are effecting in reducing chronic pain via their effect on the the endocannabinoid system in humans and altering pain chemical signalling.

As aggressive autoimmune diseases, most of these conditions require sophisticated, high end medications to manage their progression. I saw many cases of men and women who had life changing benefits from DMARDS, or Disease Modifying AntiRheumatic Drugs. My main take home point from this rotation was if one of my patient is newly diagnosed with one of these conditions, REFER! to a rheumatologist as the medications are advanced and specific. My great-grandmother was bed-bound by 40yo with rheumatoid arthritis and she did not have the benefits of science to treat her disease progression. Even tho I am also a Naturopathic Doctor, I have respect for the powerful efficacy of these medications and do believe they improve and maintain quality of life in potentially destructive conditions like these.

On the other hand, medications alone are often not enough to manage and maintain the best health possible. The 2017 textbook I was given for the elective had a small section at the back for complementary and alternative therapies that have good evidence for rheumatology.

  • Vitamin C is an essential component of cartilage and collagen. Supplementation reduced progression of joint and cartilage destruction over time. My Note: Vitamin C is naturally occurring in high levels in many raw fruits and vegetables. This is a great reason to eat fresh raw foods as part of your every day diet with any kind of inflammation or joint disease.
  • Vitamin D is for more than strong bones; it is also a hormone that effects immune health. Countries that have less sunlight year round have higher occurrences of autoimmune disease. Get outside 20 minutes daily minimum all year round, and supplement vitamin D every winter. Have your blood levels tested every fall to ensure optimal levels of this hormone and nutrient.
  • Fish Oil has known anti-inflammatory properties in its EPA component and many brain benefits in its DHA. This rich omega 3 essential fat is best eaten as a meal at least 3 times per week – a tin of sardines, mackerel or herring has way more nutritional value than a couple of fish oil pills and costs so much less. Any seafood will contain fish oil  – the littler the fish, the higher the benefit when it comes to these healthy oils. If you do go for the fish oil pills know that you get what you pay for. Evidence shows you need about 3000mg of fish oil via pills daily for benefit, or at least 450 mg DHA and 750mg EPA. I like Nordic Naturals Brand for best quality and efficacy if you are going to go the pill route. For tinned fish, there are lots of brands, but this is my fave and it’s easy to find in regular grocery stores.
  • Omega 3 oil is also available in vegetarian form as flax seed oil or marine algae oils.

The evidence for a specific kind of diet for autoimmune disease is variable. Dr Jackson referenced the Mediterranean Diet as the best foundational nutritional plan for Lupus specifically. This makes sense as it is a low inflammatory, high fruit, fiber and vegetable diet with known benefits for heart health and longevity.

Many people choose to go paleo, or follow the whole 30 autoimmune diet plan. Phoenix Helix is a podcast dedicated to autoimmune health and paleo nutrition. During my rotation I listened to a great episode with Dr. Aly Cohen, an integrative rheumatologist who spoke on scleroderma and integrative medical management. In addition to reviewing some specific suggestions for scleroderma, Dr. Cohen spoke on the importance of reducing processed food chemicals, pesticides and additives and choosing clean drinking water, not from plastic bottles. As she said, over 90,000 chemicals have been introduced to the ecosystem and therefore the human body in less than 100 years. Autoimmune disease is linked to this toxic burden and inability to process the chemicals. Find out more about her work @thesmarthuman on Twitter and Facebook.

Three weeks of rheumatology clinic was only enough to learn the basics of diagnosis and management, and gave me great respect for my fellow Rheumatologicial internists. Each of the conditions under the Rheumatology umbrella have advanced immune dysregulation and multisystemic consequences with potentially dire outcomes. Fortunately, pharmacology has a class of exceptional medications that work quite well, especially when paired with nutritional initiatives and long term pain management strategies that focus on quality of life. I am grateful to Dr. Stanhope and Dr. Jackson at Central Maine Medical Center Rheumatology Associates for letting me ask too many questions while they were trying to write notes during their busy clinic days – and for the freedom to enjoy afternoon sunshine on my last medical school rotation!

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Reflections from the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference 2013

What a phenomenal catalyst for change. June 13-15 was the 12th annual Trans Health Conference in Philly. It was a massive collection of workshops on many different aspects of Transgender, Transsexual and differently gendered health and healing including medical, legal, spiritual, practical aspects, self-empowerment and so much more. I was honored to be a presenter this year on Naturopathic Medicine and Trans Health. It was my first time attending the conference, and I am so impressed by the caliber of the event. I primarily attended medical style workshops including presentations on the most recent research being done with the trans community.

My talk was a great learning process for me. Not only from the questions asked by the diverse and well informed crowd, but also as a reflection of self. I am very comfortable in the trans community, consider myself an ally, and am aware of the multidimensional and sometimes fragile nature of trans identities. And yet, twice during my presentation I wrongly identified someone as a woman and a man when calling on people for questions. Under pressure, my highly educated nervous system switched back to my reptilian brain of the binary He-She world – and this with all the *knowing* that I have of the great diversity of gender expression. I was disappointed in myself.  It is a lesson that in working with this community, it is especially important to be conscious of language. The old ways of thinking are simply not progressive enough to enter the dialogue. For example, when referencing  people, we as a society need to step outside of classifying people by sex (and race.) Instead of saying “the woman in the yellow shirt”, say “the person in the yellow shirt is ….” The majority of the time our binary classification may be right, but there is a significant proportion of times when our 2D classifiers are actually incorrect, and those can be very painful moments for the individual inhabiting the misread gender identity.

I also talked about adrenal health, and was pleased to learn of new research that evidences salivary cortisol levels are indeed raised higher in the transitioning trans population than in controls. Meaning – stress is huge. Everyone working with trans people of all identifications will need to do stress management and adrenal support. Adrenals are also a source of endogenous hormones including DHEA, which could be a resource for transmasculine and transfeminine people not taking hormones as it has the potential to shift to both testosterone and estrogen internally.  There were many questions about the use of botanicals that have been evidenced to have steroid-like action. This is an area I need much more clinical experience in.

I was heartened to meet 3 other Naturopathic Doctors and two herbalists working in this field at the conference, all of who gave presentations as well.  They reminded me of some of the important preventative medicine aspects of working with people on hormone therapies like hypertension, osteoporosis, calcium quality, high cholesterol and so much more. There were also acupuncturists, and ayruvedic practitioners offering other traditional perspectives. Next year I hope to cultivate a workshop where we all meet to share information! I know I was left with more questions than answers.

I learned important information about our trans youth, and ways to support them better from both a practical level in schools, around mental health, and medically. Dori Midnight, a Massachusettes healer and fairy witch did workshops in mental health, herbalism and ancestral trans magics. I also got to share a room with her, which was a delightful meeting of the minds with gluten-free snacks. There were many sessions on identity development and closed meetings for specific gendered health care needs that looked inspiring and transformational. There were many fantastic workshops I did not get a chance to attend, including a 2 day medical training stream which I will certainly do next year.

Overall, the experience was one that provoked intense introspection and profound leaps of knowledge. It was an event that is crucially important to modern medicine, to understand not only the vernacular but also the urgency of the need for competent health care providers AND self care within the transgender, transsexual and gender non-conforming communities.

A few links and resources from the conference:

http://www.trans-health.org/

http://www.dorilandia.com/html/home.html

http://thirdroot.org/

http://www.rainbowhealthontario.ca/admin/contentEngine/contentDocuments/Gender_Independent_Children_final.pdf

www.riverstoneconsult.com

www.gendercreativekids.ca

www.fenwayhealth.org/transhealth

 

 

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Mediterranean Adventure II

We were concerned that traveling Gluten Free would be tough. And not even just gluten free – I can’t eat potato or corn, and my sweetheart can’t have rice. So, we were both headed abroad knowing that food choices could be tough. We had the good fortune of staying with family, so for most of the journey we had a kitchen and fridge to stock with staples we could rely on. For me – mostly eggs, rice cakes, delicious olive paste, incredible fresh green olives. For my sweetheart – she had the bonus of finding gluten free bread, plus corn cakes, jam, and yogurt. Then we  shared fruit, veggies and local cheeses. She brought her own corn pasta, and I had no trouble finding rice pasta as needed in the local “Veritas” (organic) market for family dinners. We even found quinoa! Local markets and/or supermarkets also had lovely fresh meats, fish and produce for family dinners. We both brought some snack bars (Kits Organics for her and Luna Protein for me) as well as trail mixes. Of course, there were also lots of delicious treats we could both have. Europe has an impressive array of yogurts, puddings, and other cold delights in small jars. (Less ice cream though, in the freezer sections.)

Overall, food turned out to be less of a problem than we feared. When going out, my sweetheart was invariably able to get “patatas bravas,” a local dish of fried potato with a yummy spicy mayonnaise. Tapas (or pinxtos as they are called in San Sebastian) were harder for me to navigate, so often I just didn’t. Dinners out were easier – I could almost always find some delicious fish or chicken and vegetable options in the Menu del Dia – a 10-15 Euro daily menu with 3 courses and wine and coffee included. As my sweetheart is more sensitive to gluten and cant get away with any exposure, she usually stuck to Ensalada Mixta (salad, tuna, olives, and hardboiled eggs) with a potato side dish. All in all, it worked out well. We weren’t able to sample the breadth of Spanish gourmet cuisine, but we still had some flavorful dishes and local delicacies.

As a Naturopathic Doctor, I was constantly assessing the Mediterranean Diet and to see how the classic reputation of the region matched the real fare. As I suspected, there was plenty of bread, cheese, sugar, and packaged foods available as in the Standard American Diet (SAD.) There were a few noticeable differences though that may account for some of Europe’s lower body weights and improved life expectancy. First, there was no bacon. Yes, “bacin” was on some menus, but it was peameal-style bacon, pan-fried and not the true “bacon” of North American fame. Second, beef was rare to see on a menu or in the supermarkets, and was quite expensive. This made sense as we drove across the country, as there were very few cows. European terrain is not made for grazing the way Texas is.

Finally, and perhaps most impressive to me was the rest stops for food along highways. Each one was set up like a classy buffet restaurant, complete with chefs behind the food casing presenting grilled vegetables, roasted chicken, and a wide arrays of sandwiches, jambon, fruit and cheese choices. There were mini bottles of wine and cans of beer at every register, as if instead of being on a roadtrip one was intentionally stopping at that location for a meal. And stop everyone did, even for coffee. The American in me was shocked that people were literally getting perfect little iced espressos and walking to sit down and drink it before they got back on the road. We are such a to go culture! The contrast was very strong, and was I think the best illustration of the differences between our SAD diet culture and that of the Mediterranean. They sit down and savor a meal, a coffee, and a moment in time. It’s a lifestyle, a way of thinking, and a paradigm. We eat on the go, “para llavales”. We Rush, wolfing down food, eating mindlessly as we multitask and gulping down our beverages while we push on ahead. And we pack on the pounds and generate chronic disease as we go along, coercing our nervous systems into simultaneously digesting and running at the same time.

I am still filtering through layers of impressions, photos and reflecting on the whole experience of world travel. I highly recommend Spain to anyone – Barcelona is the second most popular tourist destination in the world, and well worth the hype. Traveling gluten free was not a problem; we were able to find great local resources and food options, especially for a food adventurist. For those who can eat gluten, there is an incredible world of tapas out there just waiting your arrival! But do yourself a favor – eat like you have all the time in the world.

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