Society and Chronic Health Conditions

Society generally doesn’t cope well with the concept of chronic conditions or chronic illness, especially invisible conditions. All understand terminal illness and curable illness. The vast, and increasing, number of unwell people diagnosed with an invisible condition that is neither terminal NOR curable? Not so much understanding, not even by some members of the medical and scientific communities.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) talks about noncommunicable diseases and usually focuses on cardiovascular diseases, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes. The WHO says the majority of deaths from these conditions occur in low- and middle-income countries.

Conversely, if we look at autoimmune diseases, also noncommunicable, we find the incidence is rising dramatically in countries like the UK, USA and Denmark.

Four million people in the UK are living with an autoimmune condition – which can cause pain, difficulty, lost opportunities in work and in life, and in many cases place people at risk of early death. Four million people. That’s almost one in every 16 of us.

Source: https://www.immunology.org/sites/default/files/connect-immune-research-are-you-autoimmune-report.pdf

Then there are those of us with auto-inflammatory conditions with genetic links and immune system process all combined.

Many noncommunicable diseases are progressive – in other words, the patient may become disabled over time. HOWEVER progression can, in many cases, be slowed dramatically by good management: modern medications, responsible eating, EXERCISE.

Yet society is not good at understanding these concepts. Firstly, people struggle with the concept that chronic patients are not curable. There seems to be this basic premise that if you are not terminal, then you must be able to be cured. Society is far better at understanding visible conditions, such as paraplegia. Even when I was using a walking stick for a brief period, I got “better” acceptance on planes, trains and automobiles. That’s visible. This may well come from earlier times when it was quite likely people with chronic conditions did in fact die due to factors related to their conditions. For example, if any of the arthritic conditions progressed to the stage you could not hunt and gather to feed yourself, you may have starved. Asthma can be well controlled with today’s medical knowledge and treatments, but 1,000 years ago? Psychologically, humans cope with the two categories of terminal and curable – those two states have been around as long as we have. Chronic patients, those who are technically sick but live an almost normal life and almost normal life span, is a relatively new health state.

I do not personally like the terms chronic illness and chronically ill. I am not ill in the sense I am not able to live a relatively normal life. I’m not confined to bed, I’m not in hospital, I’m not on a drip: I’m still driving, swimming, working. I have chronic conditions I must MANAGE, I can never stop managing those conditions, but I am not ILL in the sense of the common usage of the word. I stress the difference between common use and medical use of the word ill. I’d like to see a different description we can use. Which sounds worse to the non-medical person: “I have a chronic condition” or “I am chronically ill”? Ill implies, rightly or wrongly, that I’m unable to function in a normal way (with some specific adjustments, perhaps). “I have a chronic condition” sounds much less scary (even to me). Society generally doesn’t refer to a paraplegic as chronically ill because many are not “ill” – does anyone think of Dylan Alcott as “ill” even though, medically, he is. We think of him as a paralympian. His achievements speak for themselves.

This is not to say that as chronic conditions progress over time the patient may not become very ill. They can. Marieke Vervoort, another paralympian, recently ended her life in Belgium when her incurable, degenerative spinal disease reached the point it was too hard for her body. It is wonderful that Vervoort had this option available to her when needed. 

“I’m really scared, but those (euthanasia) papers give me a lot of peace of mind because I know when it’s enough for me, I have those papers,” she said.

I’m focusing on those of us who have been diagnosed but are still able to function and may do so for many years PROVIDED we manage our conditions. Now, this is where there seems to be a disconnect between society and the understanding of chronic conditions. If I tell a well, non-medical person that I need to balance (pace) my exercise regime and my rest times this seems to be hard for many to grasp. You are sick enough to need rest but you go to the gym and you swim? This makes no sense. Well, it DOES make sense, that is what some of us must do to manage our conditions. Different conditions, different management plans.

Society includes governments. Governments are made up of people – who also do not necessarily get the managing the condition concept. The costs of managing chronic conditions, costs that are not strictly medication, can be high for individuals. Yet there is little support for those costs. If we don’t manage our conditions the costs to society become higher because patients may lose the ability to work: there are ongoing social costs that come with that.

It affects our employability. Employers, perfectly normal members of society, can struggle to consider a person with a chronic condition. They see it as a risk. Yet in many cases we are a more predictable health risk than a perfectly healthy person who may start work today and have a car accident tomorrow or be diagnosed with a more severe illness a month later. Most of us know what we need to do to manage our conditions. We MAY need some flexibility: part-time work to allow for exercise, medical appointments, rest. Or perhaps a later start time (arthritic conditions are notoriously inflexible in the mornings).

As a society we do accept some invisible chronic conditions very well, such as asthma and type 1 diabetes. Why the difference? Perhaps because these conditions are relatively unobtrusive to the people around you. Most would not know a person had these conditions unless the fact is disclosed. As a society we also understand these conditions are now (in most cases) well controlled by medications. The prevalence is also a factor: most of us know a diabetic or an asthma patient. Hayfever is another condition we all just accept as being a “normal” condition people have – we don’t ostracise hayfever sufferers.

It is the more systemic and/or less prevalent (rarer) chronic conditions that seem to be less well accepted and less well understood. With the annual increase in prevalence, we need to develop greater understanding and acceptance. Society also needs to consider better support mechanisms. Every person with a chronic condition or conditions will likely have a task that is beyond their physical capabilities, yet they can otherwise live a normal life. As a society we need to address chronic condition support to assist patients to stay as well as possible for as long as possible. Keep people independent, gainfully employed, contributing to society. This maintains the patient’s mental health. To do otherwise is false economy.

How we make this shift is a challenge society has not yet recognised, let alone is considering solutions for. Yet with the annual increase in prevalence, action is needed.

How do we drive change? Society has made huge accessibility improvements for people with mobility aids: society can do this too.

Engaging the Correct Muscles

You did it! You went to a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist (EP) or personal trainer (PT) and you now have a resistance training programme! Congratulations, you have taken another step in managing your chronic condition.

Even though I am qualified, I still seek the assistance of other professionals when I deem it appropriate. I did recently, with my osteoarthritic knee.

One of the exercises I have to do currently is the TRX supported squats shown in the above photo. As I was doing them alone I realised, “Hang on a minute, I’m using my arms to pull myself up!” This, of course is not the idea at all with squats – the target muscles to work are the lower body! Yes, in this case I am using the TRX to support, but I still need those lower body muscles to do at least some of the work!

While we are under the watchful eye of our physio, EP or PT they are watching closely and monitor that we are engaging the correct muscles. Technique isn’t just about holding correct form (e.g. a straight back), it is also about using the right muscles.

Once we are on our own, not being monitored, we have to ensure we are feeling the right muscles working. Sometimes that is harder than others. During a leg extension exercise it is a little harder to cheat, but those TRX squats? Quite easy to cheat. Especially for those of us with chronic conditions trying to rebuild our physical strength and resilience.

When you are in the gym by yourself working your program, check the pictures on the item of equipment (if you are using equipment), there should be some like this.

Concentrate on feeling those muscles working.

Where there is no pictorial reminders or guidance, there is usually a gym instructor on duty who won’t mind checking your technique for a moment or two if you ask.

During your physio, EP or PT consultation, make sure you are clear on exactly which muscles you should be engaging when doing each exercise and make sure you concentrate on feeling them working when you are on your own.

We want our time spent exercising to have therapeutic value, after all!

Bonus Reading for Psoriatic Arthritis patients:

A resistance exercise program improves functional capacity of patients with psoriatic arthritis: a randomized controlled trial

Ditch Your Handbag!

Even for well people, this situation is not good. For many people with a chronic condition (perhaps a musculoskeletal condition), it is even worse. It is vital we pay attention to our posture and our body balance. By body balance I don’t mean standing on one foot (although that IS a very good exercise) I mean ensuring our muscle strength and length on each side of our body is balanced, that our chest and upper back muscles are balanced. For every push exercise, we balance with a pull exercise. Rock hard quads are great, but don’t ignore the hamstrings!

What has that to do with handbags? Look at the photo. If I walk around too often like the middle image, what do you think might, over time, happen to my shoulders? The muscles on one side will be over worked and I may develop a postural abnormality. This can lead to pain and most of us do not want that.

If you rarely use a handbag, fantastic. However if you are travelling to and from work on public transport five days a week, then walking around town (getting incidental exercise) at lunch time, the hours add up.

Even if you do not yet have a condition to manage, this handbag on one shoulder habit is still not a good thing. Slinging a backpack on one shoulder is exactly the same effect. Not a good thing. Because we are creatures of habit, we do tend to use the same shoulder each time. If we swapped it around evenly, it might not be so bad.

You may keep a pretty handbag for social events. Or a businesslike one for job interviews. Other than that, ditch the handbag and invest in a backpack. Or several. There are a wide variety around these days and many look remarkably like handbags or can be disguised as one quickly if necessary.

There are even ones that can be brought around to the front for access without taking them off – very nifty.

If you do not have the shoulder mobility to use a backpack and you carry a handbag, remember to share the load between arms.

Short and sweet, just my tip of the day!

 

Brain Fog? Cognitive Impairment? Which Sounds More Serious?

As a chronic illness patient, I am over the term brain fog. Let’s be honest here, it is cognitive impairment. Two years ago when I wrote “Yes, Brain Fog IS a Thing“, I was more concerned with ways to deal with it on a day-to-day basis than investigating the neurological, physiological or immunological causes or possible relief.

Cognitive impairment is a symptom experienced by MANY people with chronic conditions, irrespective of age, yet the term is more commonly associated with older people. Google cognitive impairment and nearly every result will couple cognitive impairment with “the elderly” or “in aged care” and similar phrases.

All is not lost, however – there IS recognition! And hope!

Cognitive disturbances, mood disorders and fatigue are common in SLE patients with substantial adverse effects on function and quality of life. Attribution of these clinical findings to immune-mediated disturbances associated with SLE remains difficult and has compromised research efforts in these areas. Improved understanding of the role of the immune system in neurologic processes essential for cognition including synaptic plasticity, long term potentiation and adult neurogenesis suggests multiple potential mechanisms for altered central nervous system function associated with a chronic inflammatory illness such as SLE.

Source: Lupus brain fog: a biologic perspective on cognitive impairment, depression, and fatigue in systemic lupus erythematosus

“Cognitive disturbances”. Not quite enough in my view. The title does, however refer to cognitive impairment.

Although widely used, I find brain fog to be a somewhat dismissive term – it just does not sound as serious as cognitive impairment.

Because mine was relatively minor, only really noticeable to me, I asked other patients about their experiences. Here’s what they had to say. I am sorry I couldn’t use all the responses I received!

“To me it’s like trying to fight through treacle.” ~ A

“I cant cope with multiple processes. I need things written down.” ~ J

“One recent trip [overseas] hubby went on, the flight wasn’t direct and took more than twice the time to get there. I was hysterical, and had zero recollection of the change in flight timing.” ~ N (Note, this patient does have a Functional Neurological Disorder diagnosis)

“… impossible to do more than one thing at a time. I can’t cook and carry on a conversation. I can’t wash clothes and pay bills …” ~ T

“I just don’t trust myself with details anymore. When making med appts etc I check and double check and still get things wrong. My confidence is so low when doing paperwork etc” ~ J

“I sometimes think it is more debilitating than the pain as I have learnt to push through the pain but I can’t push through the fog.” ~ M

“When my brain fog is bad I cannot process people’s speech. I describe it as words floating past me like pretty butterflies – I hear them so know they are there, but they have no meaning.” ~ F

“I wish more people understood that it’s not just being forgetful.” ~ Hannah, who writes at Sunshine and Spoons and has ehlers danlos syndrome.

Language is important. The terms we use are important. Cognitive impairment is damn important.

In chatting to my gastroenterologist one day, I complained about cognitive impairment. I said to him, “If I were a doctor, I would have to give up practicing.” His eyes nearly popped out of his head. “Really?”, he asked. He and I have known each other quite some time now – he knows I am not the type to exaggerate. I knew from his reaction I had spoken in a language he understood.

The reality is I could do my accounting or IT roles in a wheelchair. True, my personal trainer hat would be more difficult in that case. I can’t do those jobs without my cognitive abilities. If I do make a mistake though, I am not risking anyone’s health outcomes. If I was a surgeon, in the middle of surgery and I forgot or could not decide where to cut next: that could be a problem. If I misread a blood test result, or prescribed the wrong dose of a medication (although pharmacists are a double check with prescribing) the impact on the patient could be negative.

Although my cognitive impairment has been very mild compared to other patients, I would still notice it. I knew it was there. In the early days of my illness, before we got things under control, it was worse. Even so, I was so ecstatic when this happened:

Remembering that number was so fantastic (to me) I emailed the clinical trial co-ordinator to tell her! I was in a meeting at the time and I was clearly excited. I was ecstatic! I have written before about brain fog – like fatigue, it is something many chronic illness patients battle with.

Source: A Clinical Trial – Patient Journey – Part III

Of course, fatigue and cognitive impairment go hand in hand in many situations. This is well known and why workers should not be driving home after very long hours. Yes, they could fall asleep at the wheel, but also their reaction times will be impaired.

The quotation above from the SLE study indicates how difficult research is into this area, as it is with fatigue. There can be SO MANY contributing factors: the underlying condition, medications, pain, fatigue, poor nutrition, lack of adequate hydration, lack of exercise, poor sleep, onset of menopause, age (MCI for example) – the list goes on. My objective is to highlight the seriousness of it. I would love to see the term brain fog done away with. When I mention it as a symptom, I want to see the reaction I got from my gastroenterologist – acknowledgement that this IS A SERIOUS ISSUE. Let’s have a serious name for it.

I have REALLY noticed the improvement, since the new medication kicked in. I feel my reaction times when driving are normal, I remember where I put my glasses, I’m writing (you can judge whether I’m writing well or poorly!), my concentration lasts well into the evening, I don’t need a shopping list.

This is great for me, but my thoughts are of the other chronic illness patients out there struggling to get their health providers to acknowledge the seriousness of this particular symptom on their quality of life – including employability. I’m also well aware that even if it IS acknowledged, we may be a long way from finding solutions – but if science don’t consider it a serious issue, science won’t look for solutions.

After I wrote the fatigue article (linked above), I had one patient say to me she has simply given up mentioning fatigue to her doctor. I understand why, but we can’t give up because then doctors don’t see it as being as important as it is. Unless, of course, they suffer one of these conditions themselves and have been through it.

In the five years I’ve had my conditions, I’ve been asked MANY times about my pain levels. About my mobility. I do not recall EVER being asked about fatigue or cognitive impairment. Now, to be fair, the generic “How are you feeling?” could be an all encompassing question, but I’ve never got the impression it was including either of these symptoms by default.

So – over to you, fellow patients!

  • Do you experience cognitive impairment/brain fog?
  • Do you prefer “cognitive impairment” (or some similar name) or “brain fog”?
  • Do you, as a chronic illness patient, feel cognitive impairment as a symptom of your underlying condition is seen as important by the medical profession?
  • What impact does cognitive impairment/brain fog have on your quality of life?
  • Do you feel in your case it results from pain, medications, fatigue or is it a separate symptom of your condition?
  • Do you think your family and friends understand your cognitive impairment/brain fog?
  • Has it impacted your career, work choices or employability?
  • If you are a family member of a chronic illness patient, do you feel you understand?
  • In your experience, is cognitive impairment/brain fog adequately recognised?
  • Anything else you would like to share?

PLEASE NOTE: Cognitive impairment can be caused by a great number of medical situations and can range from annoying to critically serious – this article is ONLY addressing where it is a symptom of an underlying condition, such as described in the SLE quotation provided above. If you are concerned about ANY change in your cognitive abilities, please consult your doctor.

A Clinical Trial – Patient Journey – Part III

Catching up?

Post-Baseline

Nothing much changed in the first two weeks. Of course, I was expecting NOTHING to change, I was convinced I would “win” the placebo arm. I still might be on the placebo: psorasis and psoratic arthritis are funny conditions, they can go on holidays and they can roam around your body.

By week three my skin was starting to look different – but then again I see my skin every day, it is hard to detect subtle changes. Work colleagues mentioned my upper chest looked less angry. This was interesting, as it fitted with my own thoughts.

However, my boobs were itching me. I don’t just mean a little itch, I mean if I could have, I’d have divorced my boobs. Let me put that in context: I’ve always considered my boobs a better anatomical feature than my legs. If the choice was between a long but low cut dress versus a short dress with a high neckline, the long, low cut dress won every time. But I was ready to get rid of them, especially at night.

On the plus side however, I was sleeping slightly better. Although psoriatic arthritis is a systemic condition known to affect other organs, you will rarely, if ever, find urological symptoms mentioned. Yet after a lifetime of sleeping a sound, uninterrupted eight hours a night, I started waking frequently. This was SUPER ANNOYING! Also the disrupted sleep doesn’t help fatigue levels. Ah, you see – THAT’S why I slotted in that fatigue article! By Week 4 I was not waking as often – this mirrored my experience on methotrexate. In discussions with my GP and urologist, we agreed perhaps this was linked and we would take a wait and see approach in regard to urology.

Loading Dose

Week 4 is the loading dose of the ….. well we don’t know do we? Whatever I got on Day 1, I got again Week 4. After this, it is administered quarterly, with the exception of some tricky machinations at the six month mark as the placebo arm participants are switched over to the active arm, in order to ensure the secrecy is maintained.

The details of the day are pretty much the same as baseline, with the following variations:

  • The iPad questionnaire isn’t as long
  • Only have to wait one hour, not two in case of an adverse reaction

My skin involvement was assessed at a lower coverage percentage than at baseline.

We did discuss the itching and decided on trying the old staple of calamine lotion. It sort of helped.

Post-Loading Dose

  • By Week 6 my skin was 100% clear. Not 95%, not 90%. 100% clear.
  • My ankles were no longer painful.
  • My thumbs were no longer painful.
  • I was sleeping from 10:30 pm to approximately 5:30 am most nights.
  • I could wear my runners ALL DAY!
  • I remembered a 6 digit number for a whole 10 minutes without trying!

I am pretty darn pleased about all of the above. The boobs were still itchy, but it was subsiding, thankfully.

Remembering that number was so fantastic (to me) I emailed the clinical trial co-ordinator to tell her! I was in a meeting at the time and I was clearly excited. I was ecstatic! I have written before about brain fog – like fatigue, it is something many chronic illness patients battle with. I will write again soon, in a different context, about brain fog. I have to say, this sort of detail is not considered important to the trial powers that be in that far, far away place. But to ME? Wonderful!

Am I tempted to think I actually won the lottery and got the active intervention? The skin improvement is pretty indicative. I am seeing my dermatologist next week for a pre-planned check-up so it will be interesting to see his reaction. After all, he knows more about the behaviour of psoriasis than I do.

Week 8

Week 8 is a check-up visit, quite short. Very quick iPad questionnaire, temperature and BP, bloods (no urine unless you could be pregnant, so I’m safe from that one). Discussion of has the participant had any changes to anything, such as needed to see a GP, had any antibiotics been prescribed, any adverse events, any concerns. Consultation with a doctor and the joint and enthesitis assessments.

I asked about my CRP results from Week 4. Lowest it has ever been since 2014.

My skin was formally assessed at 0% coverage. ZERO! *participant does little happy dance* We discuss the ongoing, although much reduced, itchiness of the boobs. Suspect it may be a sign of healing, such as experienced after sunburn. Sounds reasonable to me.

My thumbs, while not sore in daily use at all now, do still react when clinically assessed. The ankles no longer do. Shoulders and all those darn toe joints still react. It sounded as if less were assessed as swollen, but honestly, without the paperwork, it is hard to keep track. To me some felt less sore than last time, but they were still sore. Still lots of “ouch” from me.

My left foot is still slightly swollen overall, but being able to wear my runners for a whole day is blissful. Means I can walk further for longer, go to the gym, exercise normally.

That’s it. Home time. Not even a coffee (very disappointing).

Now, I could share a photo of the same patches of skin as I shared in Part II but there is no point – it is just clear, bare skin – there is nothing to see other than healthy skin. Not even, which surprised the assessor, any hyperpigmentation marks. My nails have not improved in the same dramatic way as my skin, however I expect that the nail damage likely has to grow out. It has never been bad, I have been lucky, so I’m not concerned.

For the first time in my adult life I am NOT battling to control a flaky scalp. Even my hairdresser was impressed!

This is a four year drug trial. From here on in, my trial updates will be quarterly, unless anything unexpected eventuates. I’m getting back to exercise related articles!

In summary, yes, based on my skin improvement alone, it does appear I may have won the placebo versus active lottery. Placebo effect in the psorasis clinical trials was very low. However, I am reluctant to count my chickens before they hatch. I am still on a low dose of a DMARD – that could have contributed (unlikely based on my discussions with doctors unrelated to the trial). So now I wait and see. If my toes improve over the next few monthly assessments (I attend monthly until March 2020, thereafter quarterly) I will be ecstatic. In fact, simply no disease progression (i.e. not getting worse) will be perfectly fine!

How Do You Find A Clinical Trial?

If, having read this far, you wonder if there may be a clinical trial for you, I have to say finding one can be quite difficult. It took me months. There are, quite sensibly, ethics rules and regulations around recruitment of participants. The patient really has to be the one to initiate the contact, to reach out. Most of the big public hospitals and universities will be running trials and have trial participant registries – at one stage I registered with Monash, for example. You will notice promoted posts on Facebook and other social media announcing clinical trials.

There is the Australian New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry, where you can search for registered trials. The search feature is intuitive and simple, a sample result is shown below.

There is the government web site, Australian Clinical Trials. I found the search feature on this web site extremely difficult to use and not remotely intuitive. As it is sourcing all data from the above ANZCTR database, just use the ANZCTR.

Research4Me is an organisation that works in this space. I quote from the website: “Reliable information and access to opportunities to take part in and contribute to clinical trials should be available to everyone. People deserve the right to a choice as to whether a clinical trial is an option they’d like to try, or help improve.” I met the founder of Research4Me, Janelle Bowden, at the ARCS conference in August. 

Last, but by no means least: where am I doing my trial?

Emeritus Research. If you are interested, visit the website, check their Currently Recruiting page, drop them a line.

Emeritus Research are extremely professional, yet at the same time the participant feels almost like family. It is a very supportive and safe environment. I am very happy. They also have a great sense of humour, which I really like – laughter is the best medicine, after all. This is an Emeritus Research Instagram post, which appeared shortly before my loading dose appointment. NOT the word I wanted to hear at the time, but I couldn’t help but laugh.

When Was the Last Time You Yawned?

Fatigue, lethargy, exhaustion, lack of energy – call it what you will, many chronic condition patients will experience varying degrees of lack of get up and go. Are you fatigued without ever (or rarely) feeling actually sleepy?

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners describe fatigue as:

Fatigue is ‘that state … characterised by a lessened capacity or motivation for work … usually accompanied by a feeling of weariness, sleepiness, irritability or loss of ambition’.1 It is derived from the Latin fatigare, to tire. For the purposes of this review article, we regard fatigue as synonymous with tiredness and malaise.

Source: Fatigue – a rational approach to investigation

Most chronic illness patients learn to pace. I’ve written Pacing for Beginners and Pacing UP, Pacing THROUGH, Pacing DOWN so I won’t go into detail again. Pacing is critical so we don’t boom and bust. Yet none of that answers the question of WHY are we lacking energy? Why do we burn out so easily?

At one stage I researched the research. I couldn’t find anything that gave me a concrete answer. Many theories and ideas, but no solutions or treatments. Many writers suggest the fatigue or lack of energy is caused by pain. Of course, the experience of pain can be worse if we are tired. What comes first, the chicken or the egg? While that is very valid in many cases, as pain is indeed tiring, it doesn’t explain those of us who have minimal pain. I can go for months without pain, but the lack of energy was always there.

In some cases it is suspected fatigue is a side effect of medications. This will be the case in some situations. But fatigue was one of my first symptoms, prior to any medications. Admittedly, in my specific case, I had a hyperactive thyroid which is known to cause fatigue, at least partly through disrupted sleep. I also had undetectable levels of Vitamin D back then. Comorbidity can indeed complicate troubleshooting!

I read also of pain leading to depression leading to fatigue. Again, possible in many cases. So it IS complicated. I hear SO MANY fellow patients complain of fatigue when it seems their primary condition is well managed – aside from the fatigue. Some conditions (mine is one) do list fatigue as a known symptom, while other conditions do not.

The focus was/is primarily on improving/maintaining mobility, and pain management, I could find little about improving or minimising the fatigue levels. Yet so many of my chronic illness contacts are vocal about the impact on their lives.

There has certainly been work done on measuring fatigue. Measuring fatigue is an important starting point, for how can we treat something if we can’t measure it? But any measuring is going to have a degree of patient subjectivity. A bit like the pain scale, which we are all familiar with. An allied health professional shared with me recently it is not unknown to have a patient cite a back pain of 8, only to easily bend over and pick up something they had dropped on the floor. How can we measure fatigue objectively? Would the medical profession take it more seriously if there was a blood test for that? Yes, there are blood tests that may isolate a cause for fatigue: Vitamin D, iron, thyroid function to name a few of the more common. Assuming all those are A-OK, there is no objective measure of my level of fatigue as a psoriatic or rheumatoid arthritis patient compared to any other patient with the same condition or any other condition.

I was discussing fatigue with a doctor recently. She said many patients across the range of arthritic conditions say they can manage the pain, but not the fatigue. The fatigue affects their quality of life far more than the pain. What can we do about it? Can anything be done about it?

One of the main improvements I am hoping for from the clinical trial I am on is an improvement in my fatigue levels AND to prevent it getting any worse. I totally recognise my fatigue is NOT too bad – I am aware it could be way worse. Even so, it is sufficient that yes, I have to pace, I have to avoid the boom/bust cycle. I have to be careful.

Recently a friend invited me to her birthday dinner. It was on a Monday night and a fair drive away. I knew if I worked Monday, drove and socialised Monday night, I would not cope as well as I should on Tuesday at work. I declined. Yet before I acquired my new life partner, psoriatic arthritis, that would not have been a problem at all. Fatigue is a far bigger problem for other patients than it is for me personally (at this time).

We need to exercise (where appropriate and recommended): that takes energy. We need to work (those who are able): that takes energy. We need to take care of our homes: that takes energy, especially if you own a cat – all that vacuuming. We need to shop for proper food and cook: that takes energy. When energy is limited, something gets dropped. Usually exercise is the first to be let go. That then means we don’t sleep as well, likely exacerbating the fatigue we already feel. Our bodies decondition, as a result we feel more pain, more pain makes us more fatigued. It becomes a vicious cycle.

About two weeks ago I was sitting in my lounge in the evening and yawned. I don’t think I’ve yawned for possibly five years. Yawning can be a signal we are ready to sleep (or hungry or bored). I’ve been sleeping better of late: now I’ve started yawning again. There may be more to yawning than we think. This article in The New Yorker from 2014 discusses yawning is a broader context – it isn’t only related to sleep hygiene. Even so, most of us can relate to yawning when we are tired.

I remember once being advised by a psychologist to go to bed/sleep “when you start yawning”. I recall thinking at the time,”That’s odd, I never yawn anymore”. I didn’t mention it though and promptly forgot about yawning. I was told if you delay, it will be 90 minutes before you feel sleepy again.

Yawning made me think about my experience of chronic illness related fatigue. I rarely felt sleepy (with or without yawns). There is a difference between feeling very, very tired and actually feeling sleepy. I’d forgotten what feeling sleepy actually feels like. Tired, yes – sleepy no. Am I alone in this? 

Where am I going with all this? To be perfectly honest, I’m not really sure. I am very interested in hearing of others’ experiences. What can we patients do to raise the profile of fatigue as an issue we want fixed if at all possible? Yes, it is recognised, but what is happening to develop strategies or medications to relieve this debilitating symptom?

Please share your thoughts and experiences.

  • Do you, as a chronic illness patient, feel fatigue is seen as important by the medical profession?
  • Do you experience being really tired, but not sleepy?
  • Am I the only one who stopped yawning?
  • What impact does fatigue have on your quality of life?
  • Do you think in your case it results from pain, medications or is it a symptom of your condition?
  • Do you think your family and friends understand your fatigue?
  • If you are a family member of a chronic illness patient, do you feel you understand?
  • Anything else you would like to share?

Let me tell you something – writing about yawning makes a person yawn. A lot!

PLEASE NOTE: Fatigue can be caused by a great number of medical situations and can range from annoying to critically serious – this article is ONLY addressing where it is a symptom of an underlying condition. If you are concerned about ANY change in your fatigue levels, please consult your doctor.

A Clinical Trial – Patient Journey – Part II

I mentioned at the end of A Clinical Trial – Patient Journey – Part I that I had originally planned not to share my experience until after the placebo arm was over. On reflection, I realised that would in fact be unintentionally biased reporting, because events during, and the experience of, that first six months, when I may or may not be on the active intervention, are valid when discussing clinical trials from a patient perspective.

I had convinced myself I would get the placebo. I do not have a history of winning at chance! The lottery? Yeah, nah. Raffles? Not a hope. Scratchies (are they still a thing)? Never! I did once win $100 in a work event of some sort, but that is hardly indicative of a great winning streak. Psychologically, it is easier to plan on having a further toughish six months than be disappointed if nothing happens. Makes sense, I think!

In Part I, I also mentioned I thought I may get an early indication based on any skin improvement. This graph is from psoriasis clinical trials.

Source: http://www.medicines.org.au/files/vepskyri.pdf

As can be seen from the above, results in the skin trials were seen very quickly. Although the trial in which I am participating is for the arthritic condition, the skin condition will also be treated.

Let’s pick up where we left off, at the baseline visit.

Baseline

After dealing with all the paperwork, doctor consultation, having bloods and urine taken, temperature and blood pressure checked, joint and enthesitis assessment and answering a lengthy quality of life type questionnaire on an iPad, it was time for the injections. I remember watching it go in (yes, I watch injections, apologies to squeamish readers) and thinking, “There’s my saline solution dose for the day”. One into the abdomen, one into the thigh.

From November 2018, I had been having UV B light therapy for the psoriasis. It really works well, but one of the criteria of the trial is no light therapy. Makes sense – the aim is to test the efficacy of the drug and that would be most difficult if certain other therapies (see explanatory comment below) were being employed at the same time. So I had to stop light therapy a specific period of time prior to the baseline visit.

The following two photos I took July 6. While with UV B and methotrexate it had reduced dramatically, once off both those therapies the skin had flared again. My baseline visit was July 17. I’d stopped the UV B therapy a little earlier than I otherwise would have, because I’d stopped in preparation for one trial, then ended up on the sister trial with a later start date.

These photos are embarrassing to share, nor are they anything like “clinical quality” as I just snapped them with my phone, but they are more meaningful that quoting percentages. If my articles are to be useful to readers, I have to be prepared to drop the mask of normality so many of us wear a lot of the time. I wanted my own baseline for comparison. We forget how things looked, over time: I wanted to be able to look at my skin further down the line on the trial and be able to see (or not see) any change. As this trial is for psoriatic arthritis, not psoriasis, no photos are part of the trial documentation.

The image on the left is a patch on my leg. The image on the right is my upper chest, just below the collar bone. You can see older images of my arm on “I am Medication Free! For Now, Anyway…

The skin makes swimming and hydrotherapy embarrassing. Rightly or wrongly, I worry other swimmers are going to think I’m contagious. It just looks…..horrid. Worth mentioning, perhaps, this sort of skin involvement is new to me – when I say new, I mean I went through MANY years of my life with the odd tiny patch which would disappear, or absolutely none. I am not used to this.

I’ve shared this swollen foot photo before, this was February, just as DMARD number two washed out of my system. This is the psoriatic arthritis aspect. The right second toe is clearly also swollen – dactylitis. Yes, you may indeed compliment me on my choice of polish!

The joint and enthesitis assessment is quite lengthy because it involves an independent assessor testing the many finger and toe joints as well as, jaw (TMJ), feet, elbows, shoulders, sternum, knees and hips (SIJ). It seems as if, if you have a joint, they will assess it! I never think of my toes being sore, aside from the big toes, yet it is surprising just how sore they are when a relatively light test pressure is applied. I knew my thumbs were sore, but all those toe joints: ouch, ouch, ouch.  My fingers, aside from the thumbs, are OK. Even the thumbs are not bad – the soreness doesn’t stop me doing anything AT THIS TIME: however my concern is disease progression. I want, if at all possible, to stop progression.

The assessor also looks at and records the percentage of the body showing skin involvement.

At the point of the above photo, I could not fit my runners on at all – that makes exercise difficult as the gym frown on bare feet for safety reasons. The swelling had reduced a bit by July, but I was still struggling to wear runners for any length of time. The assessor, using a clinical approach rather than my layperson’s visual assessment, flagged many of my toe joints as swollen as well as sore. We get used to looking at our own bits and pieces and over time the abnormal can start to look normal.

Which injections you get is controlled by a mysterious person far, far away. To that mysterious person I am just a number. My co-ordinator emails the mysterious person, who I suspect at baseline tosses a coin to decide which arm I’m in: active or placebo. Of course I am joking – it is likely much more scientific than that. Now I’m curious – I must ask next visit!

An email comes back advising which two numbered boxes are to be used for my participant number. I wanted to keep the boxes as souvenirs (main photo) but they have to be kept for the trial auditors to check I was given what I was supposed to be given.

None of us, the investigator, or my co-ordinator, or I know what is in those syringes. It is a 50/50 lottery at baseline.

After the injections the trial participant (i.e. me) sits around for two hours in case of an adverse reaction.

Take a book or iPad or Kindle with you is my advice! You may have another participant, of your trial or another trial, to chat to or you may be sitting alone. Very comfy chairs, nice throw rug for colder days, but essentially a pretty boring two hours.

Then time to go home.

Please, PLEASE bear in mind that even if you were on the exact same trial as I am on, you may have a completely different experience to my experience. Your disease would not be at the exact same stage as mine, you may have more or less joints affected, you may have more or less skin involvement, you may suffer more or less fatigue than I do. So many variables. What I write is my specific experience. Your experience may be similar, or not.

The next stage in the loading dose. This happens four weeks after the baseline injections.

I know, I know, you want to know where I am on that graph! Can I fit my runners on now? Well, I gave the runner answer away in a recent article if you are paying attention. Be patient, all will be revealed in good time. I had to wait and see!

Explanation re Concurrent Therapies

Although light therapy is not allowed, participants may stay on up to two DMARDs while on the trial. After all, if the participant is in the placebo arm, if no concurrent therapies were allowed, those participants would effectively be receiving no treatment at all for six months. Each clinical trial will have restrictions specific to that trial.

I am also restricted in what other medications I can take, such as pain medications. Given I rarely take any pain meds (exercise is my pain management), that didn’t worry me. I can’t change my dietary supplements, although I can stay on the ones I started on e.g. Vitamin D as ordered by my endocrinologist, fish oil as recommended by my sports physician. There are rules around surgery during the trial.

These are all considerations when deciding whether to participate in a clinical trial.

A Clinical Trial – Patient Journey – Part I

Background

After discovering last November (2018) that my second DMARD (disease-modifying antirheumatic drug) had to be retired from my treatment regime, I did two things. I tried going medication free. I also started researching drug trials. If being medication free didn’t work, what was going to be my next step? What choices did I have that might be outside the standard treatment pathway?

Why research drug trials in particular? The first DMARD I was prescribed was developed in the 1930s. The second was introduced in 1955, originally to treat malaria but was later found to have immunomodulatory properties. These drugs are as old or older than I – surely modern medical science had something better by now? Something I wouldn’t have reactions to?

Well, yes, there are newer drugs available. Biologics are available on the PBS (Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme) – IF the patient qualifies. That qualification bar can be high. As a example, this link to the PBS has the qualification requirements for one biologic that may be used to treat psoriatic arthritis. Click on the red “Authority Required” link to see the qualification requirements. When would I qualify? When I was 80? Not really a very positive thought for me. Yes, a private script can be given, but at $1,049.69 for four injection pens that is a little outside my price range long-term. And that is one of the cheaper ones. $40.30 with PBS subsidy. The schedule is usually inject once a week, so that is a monthly cost.

After much researching I found a drug trial that appealed to me. I don’t know who thinks up drug names, but this is risankizumab. Before I learnt how to say it, I referred to it as the “Kazakhstan drug! I had researched the drug extensively, then looked for trials in Australia. The drug had already been approved in some jurisdictions to treat the skin condition psoriasis, so there was plenty of information available. On July 23, 2019 it was announced this drug received TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) approval for use in Australia, but is not yet on the PBS.  Published results from those clinical trials were very informative and positive.

The trial in which I am a participant is to assess the efficacy for psoriatic arthritis.

So I had found a drug trial I was interested in for a drug that looked very promising.

What Was I Looking For?

At this point you may be asking what was I looking for by considering doing a drug trial. As odd as this may sound, I was looking for treatment stability. I am now on my fourth DMARD. Each one has not been the right medication for me. As noted above, some of these were not the newest drugs around. Plus there was this encouraging line on the patient information sheet of one: “It is not clear how [drug X] works.” Or this one: “It is not clear how [drug Y] works in inflammatory conditions; however it is thought to have an action on the immune system.”

There is my personality type to take into consideration. I’m one of those annoying yellow quadrant HBDI people – we are the experimental thinkers. This might make me a radical patient, I suspect! It means I’m always looking “outside the box”.

I’d also had the experience of having a Synvisc injection when it was very new – that experience had been extremely positive for me. Trying new stuff is not something that scares me in the slightest.

I have faith in medical science. No, we don’t always get it right, thalidomide being the classic example as I have discussed before. I don’t seem to qualify for the biologics currently on the PBS, yet I was desperate to at least try a medication younger than myself. A medication where the therapeutic action was actually known.

I wanted something that worked without the myriad of side effects I’d experienced to date. I was also looking for a medication that might address the fatigue that goes hand-in-hand with many chronic conditions, including psoriatic arthritis.

A Third and Fourth DMARD

There was an event that drove me even more in the direction of being involved in a drug trial. In March this year, while I was still mulling over the prospect of being a lab rat, I suffered an adverse reaction to my third DMARD. I was prescribed a fourth DMARD. It seemed if there was a reaction to be had from these DMARDs, I was unfortunately a person who was going to react. By this stage I had lost faith in DMARDs as a treatment for me. I must stress, they work perfectly well for many, many people. I’m just not one of those people, it seems. One of the DMARDs had worked wonderfully for the arthritis, but ruined my skin, for example. There was something with each of them.

Again, I stress, all these were the standard treatment pathway. I wasn’t being “mistreated” in any way.

Next Steps

I discussed the proposal with my GP, my dermatologist, my urologist and my pharmacist. All four were very supportive. I have since also brought my gastroenterologist up to speed and he is also supportive. I must make clear I was not asking them from a rheumatological perspective of course, I was seeking any concerns they may have for me in their field of speciality and/or any concerns they may have about MABs in general.

I signed up and waited for the screening appointment. While waiting I bit the bullet and got a second opinion. This rheumatologist was also supportive of my desire to do the trial. Disclosure time. Through sheer coincidence this professor happens to be involved with the drug trial. My GP had written the referral well before I’d found the trial I was interested in. My GP had not even known I was researching drug trials, I had never mentioned it. The fact there was a connection was serendipitous.

Screening

My initial screening appointment was on my birthday! That was in June. So. Much. Blood! They do take a lot of tubes of blood, let me tell you. At least for this trial. I failed the first screening. Probably because I’d been taking prednisolone to try to control the inflammation while DMARD four ramped into gear, my CRP (C-reactive protein) had dropped 0.15 below the cut-off. A month earlier it had been way over. Luckily there was a sister trial with different patient qualification criteria and those criteria I did meet. That meant a second screening appointment. That took place in July. Of course, at this later screening my CRP was back up again, well over the cut-off for the first trial, but the rules are the rules. I am on the sister trial.

You are weighed, height measured, vitals taken, blood tested, joint and enthesitis assessments are done. The skin is assessed. There is paperwork, lots of paperwork. A medical history is taken (I took in a typed history from birth to now). A consultation with a site doctor. All up the screening process takes about two hours.

When I cite visit durations, these are for this particular trial. Other trials for other medications may be longer or shorter.

Active or Placebo?

This is a double blind clinical trial. Those wanting further information on clinical trial protocols in Australia can read this link at Australian Clinical Trials. Yes, there is a placebo arm. While the trial goes for four years, the placebo arm only goes for six months, after that all participants are on the active intervention. My rationale was six months of placebo could not be more difficult than the last six months I’d been through and I would only have to manage for six months if I lost the 50/50 lottery. I had nothing to lose.

I also knew that results from the trials for treating the skin condition showed very little placebo effect and that results had been seen quite quickly. I felt I would have a very good indication before the six months was up of whether I was on the placebo or the risankizumab, based on my skin.

Baseline

My Baseline appointment, the appointment where you actually receive the drug or the placebo, also took place in July. This was a much longer appointment. Essentially all the steps of the screening appointment are repeated, plus the injection, plus the patient has to wait for two hours post injection to ensure there is no adverse reaction. The coffee is good.

How is it going?

I was originally not going to write about this until after the six months. The fact I am writing earlier should be a slight hint. This will be a series as there is way too much information for one article! Tune in later in the week for Part II!

Incommunicado Quads and Walking Sticks

I know I’ve been incommunicado – unfortunately the quads in my right leg also went silent – so silent I couldn’t move my right leg. At 1 am on a Friday morning, not knowing what was wrong, I’ll admit to being a little panicked.

This was a few days after I’d had some very minor, completely unrelated surgery, so it was a bit of a busy time. My knee was already playing up then, as the hospital had helped me into a wheelchair from the taxi on arrival for admission.

Initially I thought I’d just been lying funny and my leg had “gone to sleep” and would recover in a few minutes. When it didn’t, I was a little more concerned. I couldn’t actually make it out of the bedroom – every time I tried, using the windowsill as a walking stick, then swapping to the bed frame – I’d get halfway across the end of the bed and feel SO nauseous I’d have to lie down again. Took me three or four attempts to actually get out of the bedroom. The doctor later told me this would have been due to pain, yet I do not recall any pain, I just could not use my leg. Well, yes, it was very painful if I put any weight on it, but I was studiously avoiding doing that – or so I thought!

To cut a very long story short, I dragged my poor daughter out of her bed, a 40 minute drive away, to take me to the emergency department. By 10 am I could lift my leg about 1.5 centimetres off the bed in ED. By noon I could bend it 90 degrees! Yay! I did not want to be admitted because the following week I was starting a clinical drug trial and intervention at this point might very well have excluded me. More on the drug trial in my next article – it is FANTASTIC.

So I was allowed home with a prescription of rest and elevation. The knee was rather swollen. Something else I didn’t need. It was the swelling in the knee that cut off my ability to use my quads. I should have known: earlier in the week I’d used an ice pack. I remember thinking “This ice pack isn’t very cold” then popping in on my left knee for a moment and thinking “This ice pack is FREEZING”. Clearly there was already a bigger problem brewing than just a sore knee.

My quads shutting down had nothing to do with my psoriatic arthritis. This was just a new problem arriving with very bad timing.

An MRI later and the results were in: “significant osteoarthritis, particularly behind the patella”. Oh, great – just what I need – not.

I got one of those awfully boring grey hospital sets of crutches so I could get around. Of course I thought I’d only need them for a day or two. Umm nah. I did manage to get down to one crutch, but I hated the grey, the cuff didn’t fit properly over my denim jacket and I was about to go to a conference in Sydney (more on that in a later article too). So I bought a very pretty walking stick (see above). If I had to use one, I was going to at least be semi-stylish!

Second problem was how to rehabilitate this knee. My rheumatologist advised (just as well, really) exercise to build my muscle strength back up. With the challenges I’ve had since January with medication changes and the resultant psoriatic arthritis flare, my exercise had taken a temporary back seat. It doesn’t take long to lose strength, especially as we age! I am reasonably sure this contributed to the osteoarthritis letting me know it was not at all happy with me. In order to make 110% sure I was doing the right thing, I enlisted the help of an exercise physiologist, Jack. Yes, I’m a personal trainer, but in this specific case I wanted to triple check my approach was correct. Jack has higher qualifications than I do and I do not hesitate to call in the big(ger) guns if necessary. He did get me to start a little slower than I might otherwise have done (a good thing), but by the second appointment he essentially let me loose. I did pick up some nice new very specific rehab exercises from him and am very grateful for his guidance and expertise.

I retired my walking stick on August 29th after six weeks. Yesterday I was back on the leg press, high reps, low weights. VERY low weights. I did one set at 40 kgs and two sets at 60 kgs. I was doing 160 kgs last year! This picture won’t mean much to readers, but to me it was getting my mobility back!

I’ve also been doing hydrotherapy. I’m “allowed” to do as much hydrotherapy as I like. Jack was thrilled I was doing squats in the hydrotherapy pool, I was thrilled he was thrilled with my adaptation! I do them out of the pool as well, but in the pool is good, especially with this darn knee.

Back in 2014 I’d had a Synvisc shot in my left knee (which was great) but of course that strongly indicates that left knee is not all that wonderful. It also indicates (although I didn’t have an MRI of the right knee back then) that perhaps both knees were a little under the weather back then. I had an arthroscopy on this right knee many years ago and until now had no further issues. Well, now I know I have two knees requiring a little extra care and attention. With the extra load the left took while my right was on strike, by the time I retired the walking stick, my left knee was reminding me it is no longer a perfect 20 year-old knee. I threw my hands in the air and applied the rehab exercises to both knees.

I’m lucky – I have been able to retire the walking stick. Using one is like driving, it takes a long time before it becomes second nature. I felt I was on “L” plates the whole time. I’d drop it when trying to juggle bag, stick and anything else I happened to have – such as a morning coffee. Getting on and off trams was a challenge but at least I was no longer one of the invisibly ill and people jumped up to give me the special needs seats. I now had a badge. I never seemed to be able to lean it anywhere without it falling over – poor Cleo (my cat) nearly got whacked by the flying walking stick several times as it fell to the floor. I felt I just could not get it right. I also felt SO SLOW.

I have a new appreciation and understanding of those who use mobility aids permanently or semi-permanently. In the last week, I carried it with me, but used it less and less as my knee recovered – however then people look at you in very odd ways as you are carrying but not actually using a walking stick. I never thought of getting a folding walking stick – lesson learnt!

That particular situation is much better addressed by Kristen Waldbieser, who does not need her wheelchair 100% of the time.

Between minor surgery and the above, I hope you forgive me for being very quiet. I’m going to make up for that in the coming days. I have a drug trial and a conference to write about! Stay tuned!

Packaging Our Pills in Plastic

Plastic is the horror product of our times. A relatively recent innovation, plastic penetrates every aspect of our lives. Scientists have estimated 8,500,000,000 kilograms of plastic waste is ending up in our oceans every year (source “How Much Plastic Is In Our Oceans”, second video below).

That is a lot of plastic in anyone’s language. Plastic shopping bags, plastic drink bottles, product wrappings. Although there has been much furor recently in Australia over the banning of single use plastic shopping bags at supermarkets, I have been noticing other uses of plastic that we could surely rethink.

Product wrappings: I have been on a linen buying spree of late and the amount of plastic in which sheets sets and doona sets are packaged is quite amazing. Not really reusable either.

Fresh fruit and vegetables: this is one of my biggest gripes. If they are not prepackaged, then we use those silly little plastic bags in the fruit and vegetable section of the supermarket. We get home and into the rubbish they go. There are paper bags for the mushrooms – why can’t we use recycled paper bags for buying our vegetables?

There are many examples. My focus today is medication packaging. Not just prescription medicines either. This first came to my notice when I bought a fish oil supplement.

Red line added to indicate the wasted space

That’s a lot of plastic serving no good purpose.

Then, a month or two later I picked up a prescription for some new medication. The bottle seemed rather large to me for 15 tablets – I was thinking these must be “horse tablets” and was not looking forward to the swallow challenge. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow tablets that did not even cover the bottom of the plastic bottle. OK, a one-off, I thought to myself. Then that medication got replaced in my regime by another one. These are a bit harder to see, being white in white. At least there are 30 tablets in this bottle, not quite as bad as the bottle above, but really?

I have other medication. Predisolone. Let’s compare the pair.

The bottle on the left in the above picture has 100 – yes, that’s right ONE HUNDRED tablets in it. The bottle on the right has 30. Just 30.

Just to tie up loose ends, let us compare the actual tablets from the above bottles.

Not much difference in size, is there? The tablet on the left is from the little bottle, the one on the right is from the big bottle. But you can’t tell how big the tablets actually are, you say? I thought of that. So here they are below with a five cent piece for scale.

How big is the pill bottle compared with a standard household object? Here it is compared to a coffee jar.

Comparison with a common coffee jar.

I am just one person out of the 7.6 billion people on this planet and I have looked at only THREE pill bottles: two prescription and one a supplement. Extrapolate that out over the world. How much plastic waste is coming from our pharmaceutical industry? Worse, how much of it is superfluous? Containing nothing more than air.

How are these bottles disposed? It varies: the itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow tablets had to be returned to the pharmacy for controlled destruction. What happened to the bottle itself I do not know, but I trust my pharmacist took the responsible recycling option. But what do most of us do with most of our empty pill bottles? All the bottles I have carry a recyclable symbol. Do we all recycle? Privacy concerns have been mentioned to me: the information on the dispensing label is personal. We can and should return them to the pharmacy, but how many of us do?

Not only are there a lot of them, surely if we have to use plastic we could at least use appropriately sized bottles, not these humongous monstrosities.

Other medications come in blister packaging. While I am focusing on plastic today, there are surely waste concerns around blister packaging as well. At least there doesn’t appear to be as much superfluous plastic involved.

Blister packaging

One suggested explanation for the size of the bottles was that the dispensing label needs to fit. Yet the pharmacy managed to adhere a dispensing label quite well to the smaller prednisolone bottle above. The larger bottle didn’t even get a dispensing label attached as the bottle came in a cardboard box and the label was affixed to the box, not the bottle.

Other patient-centred considerations driving size might be:

  • The need to have a child proof or child resistant cap. None of the examples cited here had child resistant or child proof caps.
  • Larger bottles for ease of use by the patient – yet all those bottles are for me and I have to say ease of use is about the same for all of them.
  • The need to print information on the bottles. Medications come with Consumer Medication Information leaflets. These contain far more information than could be fitted on any size bottle. There are minimum requirements for “on bottle” information.
  • Differentiation so patients don’t get medications confused.

That last one would seem logical if it wasn’t disproved by the following example. These two bottles are exactly the same, but contain different strengths. As you will see I’ve written the strength in large letters on the caps because yes, I have accidentally taken the wrong strength in the creeping morning light when in a hurry. The labels are different colours, but who notices that at 6:30 am?

There are of course cost and manufacturing considerations. The above example, using the same bottle, reduces production costs. Yet if I go look in my medicine cabinet those are the only two that are the same. BioCeuticals, a company producing a wide range of supplements, do use the same bottles for many products. It is cheaper to print and adhere different labels than it is to manufacture a wide range of bottle sizes.

We are concentrating on plastic shopping bags and single use drink bottles. Yet many of us would dispose of more medication and supplement plastic bottles than plastic drink bottles. I might buy a disposable bottle of water once or twice a year only. Yet I have a considerable number of health related bottles in my cupboard.

The other consideration is leachate. Leachate is discussed in the Ted Ed video below. Not all medication bottles are discarded empty. I mentioned above one medication that was required to be returned to the pharmacist for destruction because of the toxicity of the medication. We’ve heard of estrogen ending up in rivers and streams. Other drugs excreted by humans do too.


Medications such as antidepressants, painkillers, antibiotics and estrogen are excreted by humans, and they wind up in treated sewage that is released into the environment, where fish and aquatic animals, even humans, can be exposed.

Source: Scientific American

Over time, discarded, unused medications are going to become part of the leachate from landfill where they have been discarded into the general waste bin OR the recycle collection has ended up in landfill due to contamination, which is more frequent that we like to think about. How dangerous is that over time?

If a bottle still has medication in it, does that contaminate the recycling collection?

How can we encourage the pharmaceutical industry to rethink packaging so we don’t end up with five or six times the amount of plastic needed to dispense a few tablets? It may not be as big a problem as plastic shopping bags, but it is contributing to the global plastic problem.

REFERENCES:

Department of Health, Therapeutic Goods Administration medicine labelling and packaging review, 2012

The videos below discuss plastic pollution generally. Both have been referenced in the above article.

Here is a video with lots of facts and figures from November 2017 – and the situation is only getting worse.

If you are too young to recognise the “itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow” reference, here it is, just for you.

R