Today is Rare Diseases Day and I was delighted to be asked by Elizabeth on Despite Pain blog to share my story of having Cauda Equina Syndrome, alongside Tom Seaman who has Dystonia; Jenny Jones who has Familial Adenomatous Polyposis and Short Bowel Syndrome; and Zoe (aged 12) who has Chronic Recurrent Multifocal Osteomyelitis.
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Supporting People on Rare Disease Day – Despite Pain
It can take a lot of courage to discuss health issues with friends and family, but sometimes people put their own health in the public spotlight to help others.
When someone has a rare disease, there is often very little information and support, therefore, what these people do really matters so much to so many people. Sharing their stories matters too.
To read the rest of Despite Pain’s post and to read MY story please click here
The lowdown on Cauda Equina Syndrome
What does cauda equina mean? Well quite literally it is the horse’s tail and the bunch of nerves exiting the base of the spinal cord resemble a tail.
Cauda equina syndrome occurs when something invades the spinal space and compresses the cauda equina bundle of nerves. Most commonly this is a lumbar disc herniation (as in my case where the disc completely ruptures).
The defining symptoms for CES are
Sciatica (neurogenic pain) in the lower back and radiating down one/both legs
Bladder dysfunction usually leading to retention but occasionally to frequency, change in flow or incontinence
Altered perineal sensation or lack of feeling in the “undercarriage”!
I woke yesterday morning very early, having only dropped off to sleep in the early hours. A couple of hours of unsettled sleep and I knew that my bedfellow, pain was going to kick me about for the day. Despite shivering in the cold early morning, there was that unwelcome yet familiar thin, feverish sheen of sweat all over my body that only comes with deep, intense pain.
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The strange thing was that I couldn’t quite tell where the pain was. Start from the feet and move upwards:
feet and ankles: pain, check; left nerve pain worse, check
lower legs and knees: pain, check; left nerve pain burning, check
thighs: burning, check;
hips: can’t move them, searing pain, check;
lower back: don’t even go there, hurts too much, check;
chest: every breath is creating pain somewhere else, check;
shoulders: both dislocated: do not move, check;
arms and hands: numb, yet burning, check;
neck: spasm and screaming, check;
head: did I drink last night???
face and teeth: really??!! Yes!
The problem with this pain is that when it peaks nothing will help to reduce it. No amount of drugs, distraction, heat or other remedies will help.
Pain is deeply personal. Your pain will be different to my pain. My own pains are different – the neuropathic back and leg pain I experience from nerve root damage is very different to my other EDS pains. Our pain might be in the same part of of bodies, but we will probably describe it differently and it will behave differently. The same bedfellow taking a different journey to reach the same location.
When my constant companion reaches these dizzy heights, even my spinal cord stimulator struggles to jumble and alter the pain messages received by my brain. Some professionals believe that chronic “neuropathic” pain signals are processed by the brain differently, making it more resistant and much harder to treat. I honestly don’t know and when it reaches these levels, I don’t care.
“Chronic or persistent pain is pain that carries on for longer than 12 weeks despite medication or treatment.” NHS Inform
“Neuropathic pain is often described as a shooting or burning pain. It can go away on its own but is often chronic. Sometimes it is unrelenting and severe, and sometimes it comes and goes. It often is the result of nerve damage or a malfunctioning nervous system. The impact of nerve damage is a change in nerve function both at the site of the injury and areas around it.” WebMD
There are many definitions for “pain” available and there are also definitions on American sites & Wikipedia for “intractable pain“.
The ensuing brain fog means I lose clarity of any situation and irrational behaviour follows. “Mum, why are you trying to do housework like a mad woman?” asks my teenage daughter…..just because!
because I can’t sit still
because my brain has gone into overdrive yet feels like candy floss
because I can’t think straight
because I can’t stand still
because I feel sick
because I have to do something
because breathing hurts
because doing nothing hurts
because doing anything hurts
because I don’t know what to do to make it just F.O!
Remember the old rhyme “Rain, Rain Go Away, Come again another Day”? Mine goes like this “Pain, pain go away, don’t come again another day!” In this state pain killers just make me vomit, they don’t help anyway. My beloved heat pad gives a little relief for a short period, but my body seems to know that the external temperatures have dropped despite central heating and layers of clothes.
This pain is exhausting and all consuming. Eventually I am overcome and sink into a heavy, pain ridden slumber under a weighted blanket yet wake several hours later unrefreshed and still in pain. What is to be done? Watch the weather forecast, curse the temperatures (I know Chicago and other places have it a LOT worse, but my body doesn’t know that and anything near zero degrees is horrendous), try distractions and sit it out knowing that this peak will pass.
Another day may feel wasted – another day of being unable to function, to be online with like minded pals, to read, to watch TV, to listen to music. But this will calm, it will reduce from the peak to a trough and tomorrow is another day.
So today….I am here, I survived. I am still in pain and currently sitting charging my spinal cord stimulator as I really can’t cope with turning it off during this cold weather. The Six Nations rugby is on and feel like I have been in one of those scrums! My other pains are vying for attention now….when the nerve pain is at its worst the others fade into background noise, but today the shoulder and gut pain are shouting loudly.
But here I am typing, smiling, talking and tomorrow is definitely another day!
Last month I was fortunate to be invited to attend a special day at Gatwick airport to receive information about the Accessibility plans that are in place for travellers. We – hubby and me – joined a small band of fellow EDSers (Ehlers Danlos syndromes) and other families with mobility issues, autism, Alzheimers and various “invisible” chronic health problems in order to experience “a practical overview of airport processes before actually travelling”.
Travelling can be a stressful experience at the best of times, but add a disability/special need/illness into the equation and this stress is magnified 100 fold. Accessibility issues affecting wheelchair travellers have recently hit the UK national press with the stories of BBC journalist Frank Gardiner and athlete Justin Levine. Each man arrived at his destination to find that his own wheelchair had been lost, resulting in Mr Gardiner sitting on the plane for an additional 90 minutes after landing at Heathrow and Mr Levine rejecting offers of an attendant wheelchair at Luton. Whilst Gatwick and several other UK airports have previously run Accessibility days, this particular session could not have been better timed in order for the airports to improve Accessibility profiles.
Each family was allocated a time slot and we were met at the Virgin landside airline desks where we were checked in and given the recently launched sunflower “hidden disability” lanyards. The distinctive green and yellow lanyards are to allow staff to easily identify travellers who may need additional assistance, but might not have an immediately obvious disability.
Chronic pain, autistic spectrum disorders, Alzheimers and dementia, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, IBD/Crohns/Coeliacs, mental health disorders are just a few of the many conditions that might benefit under this scheme. Members from both the police dog handlers and the border patrol were present to welcome us but it was their beautiful dogs who stole the show. Eighteen month old springer spaniel pup Gracie was a personal favourite of mine!
Do you know that there is an Accessibility and Families’ check in and security? The whole process for the average traveller has changed so much in recent years and it can feel that everyone is wanting to check in at a million miles an hour……electronic check in from home, travelling with hand luggage only, business travellers wanting to get from A to B in the least time possible. How does it feel if you take a little more time than the average person, if your child doesn’t understand what is happening, if anxiety turns into a panic attack? We were assured that the Accessible and family security can be used for anyone who needs a little more time, space and understanding. I wonder how many of you have used this facility? Please share your experience!
Last weekend Virgin airlines and Easy Jet were our hosts for the day, but I believe that other travel providers have played the host role in different locations around the country. This was my first time to go through airport security since having my spinal cord stimulator implanted for pain control and in the same way that I am not able to go into an MRI scanner, the magnetic fields in the security scanners prevent me from going through the arch. Like a pacemaker, the magnets in both devices would cause damage to my battery/programmer needing surgery to remove and replace the device. I carry a medical alert card like others in my position and whilst my condition is now “visible” due to my wheelchair, for many with chronic pain and a similar implant, it would be impossible to see their chronic condition. The security staff responded well to my needs and as hubby put my bag on the scanner and took himself through security, I was taken round the other side of the scanners and whilst remaining in my chair, a female office carried out a simple body search. I passed and didn’t set off a single alarm!!
First stop – the “V” room. This is Virgin Holidays’ new lounge in the North terminal which is for the use of Virgin customers booking a Holiday/Flydrive Package – it can be pre booked or booked on the day for each passenger. We were treated to hot drinks and a tour from very attentive staff who are eager to please and answer queries. I know that this is part of their jobs, but we were impressed by the welcoming demeanour, general knowledge and the care shown to us.
If you are not on a Virgin package or do not wish to pay to book the lounge, Gatwick North terminal has a newly opened Accessible “Quiet” lounge area located within the departures lounge and shopping area. Here it is possible to sit in more comfortable seating, away from the crowds with screen information to monitor your flight and yet still be close to the amenities and eateries in the departure lounge.
I was using my own wheelchair and pushed by hubby, but there are many of you who don’t normally use a chair, yet walking through the airport prior to boarding your plane is just exhausting. If you give the airport notice – 48 hours – it is possible to be helped by staff with a wheelchair, as some of our group did for their tours, or to make use of one of the accessibility buggies that you will have seen speeding through the airport. My advice – don’t be too independent and insist on walking if this burns you out before even setting foot on the plane. I have always been the world’s worst for doing this, but accept now that pride really can come before a literal fall!
We were taken to the Sensory room next – the first area of its kind in a UK airport. It is well recognised now that special sensory lighting, music and surroundings can greatly enhance senses and communication for a wide variety of sensory abilities. My limited experience (when nursing) brought me into contact with such areas in children’s hospices and hospitals. A room of this type can be extremely helpful for both children and adults with autistic spectrum disorders, physical and mental disabilities – I include dementia and Alzheimers here. The room is airside and only for use by those passing through security – a 45 minute session can be booked at the special assistance reception in the departures lounge. On the day youngsters in the room appeared to be having a great time, but there were few adults with disabilities when we had a quick “peek”. There is a variety of soft play cushioning and this is geared towards those able to sit on cushions and beanbags. It is important to book ahead as there is an 8 person limit. I think that the premise is fantastic and it is a very welcome addition to the airport experience – suggestions to add to this are:
for a further focus on use by adults;
to create wider aisles between the soft play areas for wheelchair access – the space is limited;
to consider how different groups might relate to each other – adults, children, physically disabled, autism spectrum disorders, etc;
to ensure that the knobs and buttons on the activities are able to be accessed by those with hand problems;
to consider in the future expanding the existing room or have several sensory rooms to cope with the high demand that the facility will undoubtedly have! Disclaimer: Please note I am not an expert and do not have autism
For someone like me who struggles with walking and stairs, the thought of using steps up to a plane is akin to climbing a mountain. It is encouraging to know that if an aircraft is using steps rather than a jetty boarding system, Gatwick airport has a fleet of German Bulmor transporters that wheelchairs can be strapped into and lifted via a hydraulic arm directly to the door of the plane. This allows the passenger entry to the plane in their own wheelchair to then transfer directly into their plane seat. We enjoyed a short ride in the Bulmor and the experience of the cabin lifting and lowering, all whilst I sat in my chair. For younger members of the party there was an opportunity to board the huge airport fire engines and to have a go at operating certain controls.
The part of the day that I was most excited about and also feared was boarding the plane – my greatest anxiety over the years has been the thought of feeling trapped in an aircraft seat and my back pain becoming uncontrolled. I can move when seated on my sofa, in a restaurant or even the cinema, but sitting in a car or a plane is a different story. Unless you have experienced chronic nerve pain, it is difficult to explain what may seem to be an irrational fear of an exacerbation of this pain and being unable to do anything about it. I was able to remain in my seat up to the doorway at which point I got up from my chair and transferred into one of the first rows on the plane. The Easyjet cabin crew were keen demonstrate that they can offer assistance and a comfortable flight to any passenger with accessibility needs.
Whilst hubby chatted with the pilot in the cockpit……
I was told about booking my seat in advance – it is advisable to pay the extra to select your seat for leg room, the aisle, to be near the loo etc etc – alerting the airport and the airline of your needs 48 hours in advance, and that my wheelchair would be stored in the hold after I have transferred to my seat. Tip: take your seat cushion onto the plane as it is likely to be lost in the hold! The loss and damage of wheelchairs has been in the media recently and is a very real concern for many wheelchair users – one lady cited the issue of “which end of a flight did the damage occur to her chair?” as no one would take responsibility. No easy solutions to this one as yet. The current policy is for accessibility passengers to board the aircraft first, in order to have time to settle and as much assistance as needed without the stresses of other passengers. Once in the seat there is a small onflight wheeled chair (similar to a fire chair) for those needing assistance to move about on the flight, go to the loo etc. I did find the seat comfortable and was in the area with more leg room – I don’t believe that I or others with EDS/chronic pain/arthritis/ fibromyalgia etc would manage with less leg room and the angle of the back of the seat is very important too. The new EasyJet seat backs are fixed and I am pleased to say that they are not in a too upright position, but I would be unable to manage in a fixed seat that was very upright as my SCS would be cut off due to the position in my spine.
I asked about facilities at destination airports and the staff were very honest. Apparently there is a European standard for Accessibility arrangements but they are open to interpretation and this means that they will vary from airport to airport, country to country. This is obviously the case when flying elsewhere in the world too, so the best advice that I can pass on here is to fully investigate your holiday plans, journey and the accommodations made at your destination prior to any bookings!
EasyJet have an Accessibility and Assistance manager, Celine McGuigan who is informative and very keen to make airport travel accessible to all. She is also notably keen to understand the needs of the Accessibility community from those with very visible disabilities to invisible problems/illnesses – in fact she has made staff, including those at a senior level, spend time in a wheelchair in order to focus minds on accessibility issues! The young members of cabin crew are also to be commended for their knowledge and enthusiasm to help without ever being condescending or frightened to ask me questions.
Feedback from the visit:
just how accessible are the aircraft toilets? They are very small and is there room for the small wheelchair and a helper to assist with a transfer? (I am aware that this is an area up for discussion around the design of both aircraft and trains);
people with allergies, mast cell activation syndrome and similar can be very sensitive to scents – some have experienced problems with the scents used to refresh the cabins and I know that the staff were going to look into this matter;
for staff to be aware during a flight that with conditions such as EDS, joint pain and cramps are a common problem and the passenger will undoubtedly need to stand and stretch;
for many the standard seats do not provide sufficient room, yet the seats with more “leg room” can come at an extra cost which can be difficult to swallow for those on an already reduced income and/or families with young children
I know that they have been in the media, but to continue to highlight the accessibility lanyards and the fact that many adults and children with “invisible” conditions will be using them; work with the community who will be using them and listen to feedback regarding wearing a lanyard and the design.
I can only congratulate all the staff involved for such an informative and practical day at Gatwick airport. More of these days across the country would be a huge benefit to so many people and the comments that I have seen from other groups have been very positive. My own fears have been put to rest and whilst I am under no illusions that air travel for me personally will remain tough and very tiring, and of course I still have some concerns, I do now think that I can do it.
So come on hubby….where are you taking me?!
Please note this has been written from my personal perspective
OK not quite a film star! I might have mislead you slightly in the title, but I hope it got your attention. Hollywood is not calling any day soon, and I don’t think the beautiful girl is destined for a career directing or behind the camera, but we did laugh whilst doing our bit for “We Are Zebra Strong”! I tried very hard to involve the younger zebras from the PainPals house, but when I suggested appearing in front of the camera the response was along the lines of “in your dreams”!
We are nearing the end of Ehlers Danlos Awareness month – and awareness month for many other chronic illnesses – but for those of us living with these bedfellows the awareness is a daily reality, not just a month rolling around annually.
Chronically Jenni has once again put together some videos sharing lives of fellow zebras – in fact she had so much material this year that she made 5 Youtube features. If you watch closely you might find yours truly in the mix!
Please take a look – bookmark for later – share with friends and family. Just getting the name out there raises awareness for us! Details of fellow zebras can be found on Jenni’s channel.
This challenge has been started by Tayler @strugglinsmol on Twitter and she would very much like all zebras to take the challenge and help spread awareness!! Please share, tweet and join our #FragilebutUnbreakable challenge!
Officially in 2012 aged 43, unofficially aged 20 as a student nurse orthopaedic surgeon told me I had Marfans syndrome (another connective tissue disorder), also hypermobility & Mum’s and my long limbs/fingers noticed by a GP when aged 7
POTS, migraine, Raynauds, difficulty regulating body temp, gut motility probs/gastroparesis, chronic back pain & cauda equina syndrome.
Very….slightly less so now than as a teen!
Wheelchairs, walking sticks, crutches, motability car
Spinal cord stimulator implant, heat, drugs, more heat, cushions & stretching, yet more heat
Mainly all back surgeries – laminectomy, pedicle screw fusion, redo of fusion with extension, spinal cord stimulator implant, x3 c/sections, minor shoulder & knee exploratory
For surgeries, pain management, gut management
Normal now is constant back and leg pain due to nerve root damage – managed with spinal cord stimulator, limited mobility, worst POTS symptoms in the morning after breakfast, at least one dislocation per day and generalised background pain, poor stamina, nausea & slow gut, unable to feel when bladder is full
Flares vary – generally pain is far less predictable & out of control, brain fog/memory problems, fatigue, POTS flare when unable to even sit up without fainting, blood pooling in hands and legs, breathlessness, lack of concentration, visual and smell disturbance (migraine)
Fab GP, Pain specialists, Cardiologist, Rheumatologist, Orthopaedic surgeon, Gastroenterologist, Urologist……
In our local small supermarket with hubby – I had walked with a Smart crutch, but as we got to the checkout those familiar POTSy feelings came and I was unable to sit down fast enough. Next thing I knew I was coming round on the floor, shoulder dislocated as arm stuck in my crutch, with a very nice young man at my side rushing for water…..hubby? Well having checked I was safe on the floor, he carried on paying for the shopping telling the bemused cashier “Oh, don’t worry she does this all the time”!!! Her face was a picture.
This has to go to be shared by 2 physios, 20 odd years apart…..the first told me as a 21 year old student nurse that “You nurses are all the same. It is in your head”…..despite my footdrop, no reflexes, and double incontinence – corda equina syndrome!!! Following my second spinal fusion and discovering I had nerve root damage & thus permanent pain, my rehab physio decided she would be able to “cure” me. During my second visit she told me that I needed to work harder to get some movement into my lower spine…..erm, I don’t think so! There are enough screws and filler in there to hold up a kitchen cupboard – IT ISN’T SUPPOSED TO MOVE, WOMAN! We agreed to part company.
I have been so lucky – but my pain specialist at St Thomas’s actually believed me and has made life bearable AND my cardiologist who also believed me and knew about EDS & POTS (I was so convinced my tilt table wouldn’t show anything)
I will save you from more wittering today and publish the second half later this week!
I warned you yesterday that I will be going totally overboard with the EDS awareness posts and zebra pictures this month.
To kick us off here is a quick explanation of “Why the Zebra?”
Medical students/junior doctors have always traditionally been taught to look for the simplest explanation when diagnosing a patient in order to prevent misdiagnosis of rare conditions. If it looks like a horse and it sounds like a horse……if you hear hooves, think horse…..etc!
In medicine the term zebra is used to describe a rare disease/illness/condition, but often it can feel that medics forget that whilst rare, zebras do exist and can struggle to get a diagnosis and treatment. This is frequently the case for Ehlers Danlos Syndrome patients, and so we have become known as medical zebras. This has been adopted by the worldwide community now as the identity for EDS and through the use of social media helps to unite us.
I have shamelessly lifted this direct from the Root Experience website as they have contacted me to ask for help to vote for their Hidden Stories initiative to win funding via The People’s Projects for the UK lottery. This is a vitally important service for people suffering with invisible illness/disabilities and as someone who lives with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and chronic pain every day, I am very happy to be an advocate for this project.
The voting closes on Monday 30th April at midday. You will find links to vote below.
Please also have a look at the Root Experience website here and it would be fantastic if you would share this post on your social media,
Thanks, Claire x
Hidden Stories is about helping people to share their experiences of what it’s like to live with an illness or condition that can’t be seen. It’s about replacing loneliness, fear and stigma with compassion, understanding and empowerment.
Ninety per cent of people who relate to having a disability don’t have any visible symptoms, which often leads to misunderstanding, judgement and isolation. We want to shine a light on the wide range of emotional and physical struggles that are unseen in our communities, and encourage more compassion around them.
So we’re helping people with life-limiting ‘invisible’ conditions – from anxiety to autism, OCD to ME – share their experiences as part of an illustrated book designed to open up conversation and offer support.
With a People’s Projects grant, we’d be able to hold storytelling workshops and work with support groups in Worthing, Brighton, Southampton, Portsmouth, Chichester, Swindon, Oxford, Bournemouth, Crawley and Woking. Then after publishing our book, we’d distribute it for free on our Hidden Stories tour.
THE HIDDEN STORIES BOOK: A MANUAL FOR CHANGE
Hidden Stories will enable people to learn about different conditions – and also seek support if they need it. Alongside personal accounts, there’ll be adaptable open letters which can be used to help explain conditions to family, friends and colleagues. The Hidden Stories book is only the beginning. We intend to build a ‘living library’ to help as many people as possible to tell their stories – because only by sharing our experiences can we begin to change how we see and behave toward one another.
At the start of our journey, we helped people with ‘invisible’ illnesses tell their Hidden Stories through a series of creative groups resulting in an interactive exhibition at Brighton Dome. We used storytelling, visual arts and soundscapes to find different ways of exploring and expressing their conditions. This has already made a difference to the participants’ lives. It’s helping them to feel more visible and valued within their communities, and more empowered to talk about their experiences without fear of judgement.
Here are some comments about the exhibition at Brighton Dome, as well as snapshot of our creative groups…
Outwardly people know me as cheerful and sociable, but there is this other side which up till now I have carefully kept hidden. When my invisible struggles take over, I tend to withdraw and not ‘show up’.
As part of our Hidden Project, we’re asking people from our community to share stories of their hidden illnesses. We believe that only by sharing our experiences can we begin to understand them – and one another.
People may not understand how invisible illnesses disrupt our everyday lives precisely because they’re hidden. Root Experience trustee Tilly Baker tells us how an untimely bout of her condition created a new understanding with her work colleagues.
Our artistic director Simon explores his recent experience of back and hip pain while working on the charity’s project about invisible conditions. He asks whether the medical treatment we receive really gets to the root of the problem…
You can’t truly understand the scale of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) unless you’ve experienced it – unless you’ve been there, done it, and checked multiple times that you do in fact have the T shirt.
I know when I come up against stigma, it’s not because I am not smart or funny or engaging. It’s because people don’t understand dyslexia. They don’t know how limiting it can be and don’t appreciate how a simple change in a process can mean all the difference to me…
We’ve started an online Hidden Stories community for those living with or affected by invisible conditions and disabilities. As a closed Facebook group, it’s a safe place for sharing stories, asking questions, and for mutual support and solidarity – amongst people who really know how you feel day to day.
Hidden Stories is an opportunity to talk about what’s unseen in our communities. Through our work we want to challenge perceptions, combat loneliness and invite people on a playful exploration of what it is to be human. Please vote for us to win a People’s Project grant, which would enable us to create our Hidden Stories book. You can also support our work ongoing with free donations every time you shop online – just sign up at our easyfundraising page. If you’d like to donate directly, please get in touch.