Friday, 8 February 2019

Real-life healthy dinners (for real people with real busy lives)

This fall, I had gotten away from my regular core-strengthening routine (nighttime planks, pushups, and abdominal exercises, on the carpet as the kids are going to sleep). At about the same time, I increased the consecutive hours spent sitting at my desk, typing away. Weakened core plus prolonged time seated at an ergonomically challenging workspace equals exacerbation of my chronic low back pain.

This situation is exceedingly common. I have both short-term and long-term solutions. For now, I get up and stand when my Fitbit buzzes (which is every 20 minutes). At least once an hour, I do toe-touches, side and back bends. I’m also adding in really quick and easy in-office core strengthening exercises. As a matter of fact, my nurse practitioners and I just practiced our chair squats, one-legged chair stands, and desk planks, as we sit here at our computers for hours at a time. Try this core workout you can do right in your office.
Next, find a way to ease the pain (ideally without medication)

Some days and nights, the throbbing pain is so bad it’s distracting, and I get irritable. What helps me are simple, holistic, evidence-based measures: ice packs alternating with heating pads, massage, gentle stretching including yoga poses, and deep breathing. These and other non-pharmacologic modalities such as tai chi, acupuncture, biofeedback, and spinal manipulation are supported by evidence and included in the updated guidelines for management of chronic low back pain.

I also use topical products that are sold over the counter: salves, usually containing menthol and camphor, and patches, usually 4% lidocaine. Salves can be massaged in to painful areas, and I feel that they are benign and truly soothe (though they have not been well-studied). Key is to keep these products away from children (camphor can be toxic to kids) and also out of your eyes (it can sting). Lidocaine patches are “numbing” and are great for focal pain, as well as widely available and inexpensive.

If I have to, I’ll take a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug like naproxen (two 220-mg tablets with food and fluids). I had to take this one day, to get through my clinic. I didn’t think patients would understand my getting up, stretching, and touching my toes during their visit! (NSAIDs are not without risk and their use should be limited. The elderly, people with a history of or risk factors for heart attacks and strokes, as well as those with kidney problems or a history of gastritis or ulcers should really avoid using these medications.) Studies suggest that muscle relaxants can also be helpful for some people.
Do what you can to keep it from flaring up again

I have done physical therapy in the past, which included guided stretching, lower back stabilization, and motor control exercises. The idea is to learn the exercises that work for you and keep doing them. Back before I had kids, I took formal yoga and Pilates classes at the gym. (Yes, I remember those days…) Nowadays, I rely on my home yoga and core exercises, with some of the moves I learned from physical therapy mixed in, all of which I really, really need to practice nightly. My routine takes all of five to 10 minutes, and also helps me to relax into sleep.

I’m two weeks into this latest bout of pain, and I find that any long car ride or day at work sets me back. I’m plugging away at it, as I know that almost all back pain goes away with time. Some called it the Katie Couric effect. Soon after her husband died of colon cancer in 1998, the journalist and television personality had a televised colonoscopy to promote the test. Rates of screening colonoscopies soared for at least a year. Or, call it the Angelina Jolie effect. In 2013, the actress wrote an editorial in the New York Times about the tests she had for genes (called BRCA) linked with breast and ovarian cancer, and how the positive result led her to have a double mastectomy. Soon after, rates of BRCA testing jumped.

Whatever you call it, the effect is real. When it comes to matters of health, celebrities can have an enormous impact.
It’s good when celebrities do good

The impulse to take a challenging or tragic medical experience and turn it into something that helps others is commendable. It may be easier to keep such matters private or avoid talking about them in public. But time and again, we see celebrities joining forces with health-promoting organizations, speaking out, and sharing their stories to help others avoid what they’ve experienced. Many have credited Katie Couric with removing the embarrassment associated with colonoscopy and showing how easy it is.
Is there a downside?

There are a number of ways celebrity pronouncements on matters of health can go wrong. For example, the information can be faulty or confusing. The forays of Jenny McCarthy (who claimed vaccines cause autism) and Gwyneth Paltrow (who recommended vaginal steams to “cleanse the uterus”) into matters of health and illness are examples of influence most doctors would consider unhelpful or even dangerous.

When I heard about Katie Couric’s colonoscopy, I thought it was brave and certainly a unique way to get her message across. But as well-intended as it may have been, she was 43 years old at the time. Since guidelines suggest people begin routine screening at age 50, I wondered if she was a good candidate for the test. Unless she had symptoms (such as intestinal bleeding), a strong family history of early colon cancer, or some other special circumstance that put her at higher than average risk for colon cancer, her colonoscopy could be considered unnecessary testing. And that could have led others to have unnecessary testing as well.

A recent study raises a similar concern about Angelina Jolie’s BRCA testing. It found that in the weeks after her editorial was published, testing increased by more than 60% (at an estimated cost of $13.5 million). However, mastectomy rates actually fell over the next two to six months, leading the authors to suggest that most of the additional women who had testing had negative results and therefore may have been poor candidates for testing in the first place. Of note, the study did not confirm whether those having the BRCA test had risk factors (especially a family history of early breast or ovarian cancer) that would make the test appropriate. Critics of the study have suggested that mastectomy rates within six months of testing is not an adequate measure of whether the tests were appropriate. Still, the point is worth considering. When a celebrity recommends a medical test or treatment, the audience is not limited to those who are most likely to benefit.
The bottom line

For any medical test or treatment, ask whether it’s likely to be helpful. The answer may be straightforward. For example, a well-studied and well-accepted screening test may be recommended based only on your age and gender. But in many cases, the answer may rely on a considerable amount of judgement based on how likely it is that you have a particular condition, the ability of the test to detect it, and the impact of the test result on treatment decisions. For example, if a person has knee pain that’s mild and well-controlled with exercises, it may make little sense to have an MRI, as the results are highly unlikely to affect treatment. Every once in a while, I’ll have a terrible shift in the emergency department (ED) in which I have to pronounce yet another young person dead from an opioid overdose. I typically have to call their parents, who usually express sorrow but not surprise at the horrific news, as we all know how deadly opioid use disorder can be. But more frequently, the overdose patients I care for survive. Typically, they were found unresponsive by a friend or family member — 911 is called, the person is given the reversal agent naloxone, and is brought to the ED where my colleagues and I take over.
How naloxone works

Here’s the problem: Naloxone is, in many respects, a wonder drug. It inhibits the opioid receptor in the brain (so it blocks the effect of an opioid) and, if there is an opioid already present, naloxone can knock it off a receptor. So, if a person overdoses on an opioid such as heroin, the naloxone pushes the heroin away and blocks the receptor but does not activate it, so the person can recover from their overdose. However, since its time of action is fairly short — shorter than the effect of many of the opioids people use — we watch patients for a few hours in the ED until we’re sure the opioids have completely cleared their system. Basically, we want to make sure that they don’t overdose again. After they sober, we offer to have them speak to a social worker (most refuse), or provide a list of detox facilities, and then they quietly leave the ED.

This status quo bothers me. In particular, I’m concerned that although naloxone is now readily available — carried by police, firefighters, basic life support ambulances, and even bystanders —overdose deaths continue to climb. I want to talk frankly with the patient who overdoses and survives, and specifically let them know their risk of dying should they not get treatment. I also want to make the case that better treatment options after an overdose are needed.

Our group at Brigham and Women’s Hospital therefore conducted a study, recently presented at the American College of Emergency Physicians national meeting in Washington, DC. In this study, we aimed to define how many patients who were treated with naloxone by an ambulance crew and initially survived were still alive after one year. Even though these patients are typically just observed in the ED hallway, allowed to sober while the ED staff is busy taking care of other patients with life-threatening emergencies like heart attacks, trauma, and strokes, our team hypothesized that the individual sobering in the hallway bed has perhaps one of the highest one-year mortality rates of anyone seen in the department.
Here’s how the study worked — and what we found

To perform the study, we took advantage of a special project in Massachusetts called the “Chapter 55” legislation which, for the first time, linked many previously separate state databases. We connected the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) database with the all-payer claims database and death records database for our study. In brief, we evaluated patients who received naloxone by EMS over a 30-month period. We then looked at death records one year beyond the first time they received naloxone.

During the study period, there were 12,192 naloxone administrations by EMS, which equals over 400 per month. Of these, 6.5% of patients died that same day and 9.3% died within one year. Excluding those who died the same day, about 10% of the patients who initially survived were dead at one year. Even more significant was that 51.4% of those patients died within one month. Also, apart from those who died the same day, about 40% of those who died within one year died outside of the hospital, highlighting the danger of overdosing before medical personnel can reach the victim and the need for bystander naloxone.
What does this mean about preventing deaths from opioid use disorder?

These results are disheartening: an opioid overdose patient who sobers in the hallway, is offered a detox list, and then is discharged has a one-in-10 chance of being dead within a year. And the highest risk is within one month. Naloxone is an important tool in fighting the opioid crisis, but is no solution. Patients who survive opioid overdose should be considered extremely high-risk. I believe that as a society, we should talk seriously about the resources that are available for people who overdose. We should counsel these patients and offer them buprenorphine (a medication used to help treat opioid use disorder) directly from the ED, provide recovery coaches, and create easily accessible treatment sites where they can go for ongoing care.

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