Sunday, 3 February 2019

Is “man flu” really a thing?

Just as we’ve finished welcoming the new year, sports fans are getting ready to celebrate the Super Bowl. This event marks the single most active gambling-related activity in the world. For most gamblers, betting on the outcome of a sporting event, lottery drawing, casino table game, or any event with an outcome determined by chance represents an entertaining recreational activity. However, for some, gambling can become an addiction.
Excessive gambling recognized as an addiction

Gambling disorder is now a part of the American Psychiatric Association’s latest version of its diagnostic manual (DSM-5). Gambling is the first “behavioral” addiction included in the substance-related and addictive disorders section of the manual. For the first time, the APA recognizes that substance-related addiction and difficult-to-control behavioral addiction are similar enough to be grouped as comparable expressions of addiction.

Now, clinicians, scientists, policy makers, gambling purveyors, and the public alike recognize that addiction can emerge from patterns of excessive behavior that derive from either using a substance, such as tobacco or alcohol, or engaging in activities like gambling, video game playing, or sex. This might come as a surprise, but it’s true. You can become addicted to gambling just like you can become addicted to alcohol or other drugs.
History and causes of gambling problems

Historically, opinions about gambling have tended to mirror the social and moral climate of the day. Gambling problems aren’t anything new; there were scientific papers written about excessive gambling as far back as 1798 and, reaching even further back into history, there are cave drawings depicting gambling-related behaviors. However, the concept that problem gambling is not a moral defect but instead a disorder is relatively new. Most experts and clinicians now consider gambling addiction as a legitimate biological, cognitive, and behavioral disorder. Further, although mental disorders can lead to problem gambling, gambling to excess also can lead to other problems.

Gambling problems have many potential causes: genetics, erroneous thought patterns, impulse control disorders, poverty, and personal experiences, for example. An estimated 2% to 3% of the US population has experienced some kind of gambling-related problem during the past 12 months. That means about 5.5 million people currently have a gambling disorder, or gambling-related problems that don’t quite rise to the level of a disorder.
Do you have a gambling problem?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should evaluate your gambling and how it fits into your life. There are many resources to help, and my colleagues and I have published an easily accessible book that can help you to evaluate your gambling and decide whether you might be a candidate for treatment. Some people need treatment to recover from addiction, while others recover on their own with no help from anyone.

To figure out whether you might benefit from a change, you need to take stock. A variety of mental health issues often accompany excessive gambling. You might have some of these symptoms even if they don’t reflect a full-blown disorder. It’s worth it to figure out whether gambling and associated activities are adversely influencing your life. Understanding how gambling works for you is a worthwhile exercise, even if you choose to continue gambling. It is easy to ridicule a 2000-year-old treatment that can seem closer to magic than to science. Indeed, from the 1970s to around 2005, the skeptic’s point of view was understandable, because the scientific evidence to show that acupuncture worked, and why, was weak, and clinical trials were small and of poor quality.

But things have changed since then. A lot.

Thanks to the development of valid placebo controls (for example, a retractable “sham” device that looks like an acupuncture needle but does not penetrate the skin), and the publication of several large and well-designed clinical trials in the last decade, we have the start of a solid foundation for truly understanding the effectiveness of acupuncture.
How do we know if acupuncture really works for pain?

Individual large-scale clinical studies have consistently demonstrated that acupuncture provided better pain relief compared with usual care. However, most studies also showed little difference between real and sham (fake) acupuncture. In order to address this concern, a 2012 meta-analysis combined data from roughly 18,000 individual patients in 23 high-quality randomized controlled trials of acupuncture for common pain conditions. This analysis conclusively demonstrated that acupuncture is superior to sham for low back pain, headache, and osteoarthritis, and improvements seen were similar to that of other widely used non-opiate pain relievers.

And the safety profile of acupuncture is excellent, with very few adverse events when performed by a trained practitioner. Meanwhile, basic science studies of acupuncture involving animals and humans have shown other potential benefits, from lowering blood pressure to long-lasting improvements in brain function. More broadly, acupuncture research has resulted in a number of insights and advances in biomedicine, with applications beyond the field of acupuncture itself.
Is acupuncture really that good?

We understand why there may be continued skepticism about acupuncture. There has been ambiguity in the language acupuncture researchers employ to describe acupuncture treatments, and confusion surrounding the ancient concept of acupuncture points and meridians, which is central to the practice of acupuncture. Indeed, the question of whether acupuncture points actually “exist” has been largely avoided by the acupuncture research community, even though acupuncture point terminology continues to be used in research studies. So, it is fair to say that acupuncture researchers have contributed to doubts about acupuncture, and a concerted effort is needed to resolve this issue. Nevertheless, the practice of acupuncture has emerged as an important nondrug option that can help chronic pain patients avoid the use of potentially harmful medications, especially opiates with their serious risk of substance use disorder.
Finding a balanced view

A post on acupuncture last year dismissed acupuncture as a costly, ineffective, and dangerous treatment for headache. This prompted us to point out the need for a measured and balanced view of the existing evidence, particularly in comparison to other treatments. Although the responses that followed the article overwhelmingly supported acupuncture, it nevertheless remains a concern that this practice attracts this kind of attack. Acupuncture practitioners and researchers must take responsibility for addressing deficiencies in acupuncture’s knowledge base and clarifying its terminology.

That said, we need to recognize that acupuncture can be part of the solution to the immense problem of chronic pain and opiate addiction that is gripping our society. That this solution comes from an ancient practice with a theoretical foundation incompletely understood by modern science should make it even more interesting and worthy of our attention. Clinicians owe it to their patients to learn about alternative, nondrug treatments and to answer patients’ questions and concerns knowledgeably and respectfully. For some people, many foods, medicines, and bee stings mean life-threatening allergic reactions that require immediate treatment with injectable epinephrine. For many people, January means the start of a new drug deductible to be met. In June 2017 the FDA approved a new form of emergency epinephrine called Symjepi, which may be good news for people who must be prepared in the event of a life-threatening allergic reaction.
The seriousness of a severe allergic reaction

Severe allergic reactions affect anywhere from 5% to 70% of persons, depending on age and prior exposure. Anaphylactic or “type 1” (immediate hypersensitivity) reactions are the most severe forms of allergic reaction to a substance: insect venom, foods, or some drugs. People who have had prior exposure to an allergic substance are “sensitized” and when they are re-exposed, can have a reaction within seconds to minutes. Anaphylactic reactions are caused by the release of histamine and other chemicals throughout the body, resulting in leaky blood vessels that contribute to swelling of tissues in the mouth and airway and very low blood pressure. These symptoms can lead to difficulty swallowing and speaking, wheezing and severe shortness of breath, and death.
Treating severe allergic reactions

The treatment for severe allergic reactions is the administration of epinephrine (adrenaline) at the first sign of symptoms. Epinephrine is one of the chemicals in the body that raises blood pressure and heart rate. Epinephrine can be administered through an IV in the hospital, but since the 1980s, epinephrine has been available as a pre-filled syringe that can be obtained with a prescription and immediately injected into the thigh muscle when severe allergic symptoms are recognized.

The prevalence of severe allergies has been increasing since 2000. Anaphylaxis to some external chemical or allergen occurs in 2% of the population, and it is estimated that approximately 500 people die from anaphylactic reactions per year in the US. Because of this, more and more people need to have epinephrine available wherever they are (home, school, when traveling). So it is no surprise that the manufacture and marketing of pre-filled epinephrine syringes has been big news in the last two years.
Keeping epinephrine at the ready

Spring-loaded autoinjectors that contain epinephrine have been manufactured by several companies since 1987. In the last 30 years, changes in pharmaceutical companies and patent transfers resulted in a near-monopoly in the production of pre-filled epinephrine products. From 2009 to 2016, one company with a 90% market share dramatically increased the consumer cost for epinephrine injectors, resulting in an investigation and eventual settlement with the US Department of Justice.

Although not a spring-loaded autoinjector, Symjepi consists of two single-dose, pre-filled syringes of epinephrine, for the emergency treatment of anaphylactic and severe allergic reactions in adults. Each pre-filled syringe contains 0.3 mg epinephrine, the recommended initial dose for emergency treatment of anaphylaxis.

At an anticipated lower cost and small size, Symjepi could be an attractive addition to this slice of the pharmaceutical world. In November 2017, the company also submitted a second new drug application to the FDA for a junior version (0.15 mg dose for children between 33 and 65 pounds). My first day returning to work after being treated for a severe opiate addiction was one of the most daunting moments of my life. Everyone in the office, from my manager to the administrative assistants, knew that forged prescriptions and criminal charges were the reason I had been let go from my previous job. My mind was spinning. What would my coworkers think of me? Who would want to work alongside an “addict”? Would they ever come to trust me? Did I even deserve to be here?

When my life was crashing and burning due to my addiction (detailed in my memoir Free Refills: A Doctor Confronts His Addiction), a return to work seemed like a distant prospect, barely visible on a horizon clouded by relapses, withdrawal, and blackouts. My finances, my professional reputation, and my family life were in terrible shape due to my drug-seeking behavior. Working was not a tenable option until I received treatment and established a solid track record of recovery, which a potential employer could rely on.

The fact that I was now in recovery was a great development, and it was further ratification of my progress that I had landed a job and was returning to work. So, why wasn’t I feeling overjoyed?
How stigma affects the return to work

As it turns out, the transition back to work after someone is treated for an addiction can be profoundly stressful. People recovering from addiction already tend to suffer disproportionately from guilt, shame, and embarrassment, and these feelings are often brought to the forefront during the unique challenges of returning to work.

Stigma is what differentiates addiction from other diseases, and is primarily what can make the return to work so difficult. If I had been out of work to receive chemotherapy or because of complications from diabetes, I certainly wouldn’t have felt self-conscious or self-doubting upon resuming my employment. With addiction, due to the prejudices that many people in our society hold, the return is psychologically complex and anxiety-producing. As I entered my new office, I was walking right into the fears, preconceptions, and potential disdain that my new officemates might share toward people suffering from a substance use disorder. For all I knew, I was the “dirty addict” that they now, against their wishes, had to work with.
“Bring your body and your mind will follow”

What I was taught in recovery, to deal with situations like this, is to “just keep your head up” and to “put one foot in front of the other.” Or, “bring your body, and your mind will follow.” When I first heard these phrases, I thought that they were mere platitudes, phrases without content, provided to motivate us through dark times. Now, I think they hold a great deal of wisdom.

As I walked through the door on my first day back, I did feel everyone’s eyes on me, and I did wonder if they were judging and criticizing me, but I made it to my desk without incident, and managed to power through my self-consciousness and get into the flow of my work. Every day, it became easier as I did a good job, deepened my connections with my colleagues, and accumulated good will, which would eventually replace any negative images that may have accompanied my arrival. Within weeks this was a non-issue, though at office get-togethers, my co-workers still somewhat awkwardly don’t know whether to put a wine glass at my place setting.

With all I had learned in recovery about communication, about humility, about connecting with others, I feel that I was in a better position to thrive in my workplace than I was before my addiction started in the first place. As more of my brothers and sisters in recovery return to employment, and as we succeed, the more difficult will it be for people to hold on to their negative attitudes and prejudices about substance use disorders. We can defeat the stigma by confronting it, putting one foot in front of the other, one step at a time.

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