Glute Bridges on the Dining Table

Finding new ways to do things in our #StayAtHome world is a must!

Situation

  • Bung knee (click for details)
  • Due to above, can’t get up off the floor!
  • Gyms are all closed
  • Live in an apartment (no space for gym benches)
  • Need to keep glutes activated (part of good knee support)

When I was able to go to the gym, I would ask one of the trainers to haul me up off the floor after my floor exercises. Now that is not possible.

Solution

While I probably could use a strategically placed chair to help myself get up off the floor, I have found a much easier solution. Use my dining table as a gym bench. The bed isn’t firm enough. Also works for sit-ups.

I can get on the dining table quite easily using a chair as a step up. Much easier to get down off the table than up off the floor!

Glute Bridges

As the name suggests, this exercise is to activate, tone, strengthen your glutes. Glutes are the muscles in your posterior. Maximus, medius, minimus. The minimus is under the medius.

Image Credit: Visible Body

Once you are safely perched on your dining table, place your legs as shown and lift your butt by squeezing your glutes. Keep your spine neutral. Hold for a count of 5, lower. Repeat.

Due to both my knee and the fact I was trying to take a photo at the same time as execution, my butt isn’t as far off the table as it could be!

Progressions (making it harder):

  • Move one leg further away from the body
  • Lift one leg off the surface altogether (this is not me at this time!)
Move one leg further away from the body

Getting On and Off the Table

  • Place a dining chair roughly where you would before sitting
  • Lean butt against/on edge of table, hold onto the back of the chair
  • Lift one foot onto chair, followed by other foot
  • Wiggle back on table.
  • To get off, reverse the above.

I’d film it if I could, but that’s a bit difficult to do by myself.

Of course, if you can do these on the floor, GO YOU!

My Personal Weight Management Under #StayAtHome

Yesterday I tweeted:

I did not expect the reaction! I promised to write in more detail what I am doing to achieve this, so here it is. I want to stress this is what works for me, given my current circumstances. It is really intended for people of similar age and in similarly physically challenging circumstances. While the #StayAtHome situation is common to most of us, of course the knee issue is an added complication. Unlike my recent short videos, this will be a long read, so buckle in folks!

Situation Summary

I have been in self-isolation since March 1. The gyms closed, the pools closed. I am a weight training person: suddenly I couldn’t even do upper body or hydrotherapy. The knee is preventing any lower body weights work or walking. I am also nearly 65. We all know as we get older it becomes harder to manage our weight than when we were 25.

I was terrified of gaining weight and making my knee pain worse. Due to several changes of medications and predisolone off and on over the period in question, I had gained a few kilos during late 2018/early 2019. I have been very successful in reversing that trend, especially once my clinical drug trial got underway, with the suggestion and support of my endocrinologist to adopt the philosophies of Dr Michael Mosley. I’d never known it was considered safe to eat 800 calories a day. I do now! Before you stop reading in horror, I’m not eating 800 calories a day now! But it is a damn good kick start to get you going and I do still apply the macro principles espoused by Dr Mosley.

Comfort Eating

Several responses to the above tweet raised the issue of comfort eating. This is an issue that is exacerbated by isolation, anxiety (e.g. about the current health crisis of Covid19) and boredom among other drivers. A chronic illness patient I know once said to me she stopped comfort eating when she realised she was “eating her pain” – and she didn’t just mean physical pain, she meant emotional pain as well. Once she had that epiphany she was able to stop. She looked for and found other ways to deal with her pain.

I find boredom can be an issue for me, especially when I can’t go to the gym or swim and I am locked away. For me, the recording (discussed below) helps immensely. I can see what I’m eating instantly.

I have no great solution for comfort eating, I am sorry, as it is a bit out of my field of expertise. I would suggest perhaps consulting a psychologist if it is impacting your weight management efforts. Mental health is a critical factor and if you have a chronic illness, in Australia you are entitled to a Mental Health Care Plan. Use it.

Understand Your BMR

Before we even look at food, my recommendation to anyone on a weight management journey is to understand your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). This is the number of calories your body burns being alive. Nothing else, just being alive. Our BMR drops as we age. This calculator at MyDr.com.au is the one I use: http://tools.mydr.com.au/tools/basal-energy-calculator

Pop in your details at various ages and you will see the BMR drop. Of course this is a average. If, like me, you are an avid weights person you will have more lean muscle mass and your BMR will be higher. Conversely, you may be on medications that actually reduce your BMR as a side effect. Even so, as a place to start, it is a good indication.

If you do no exercise and you eat more than your BMR, you will gain weight. There is more to it than that if we want to delve into the science, but for our purposes, it is that simple, really. Note well: exercise in this context includes NEAT!

Be very aware though, your current weight may drive your BMR reading up. If your BMR says 2,000 calories a day, you don’t want to be eating that if weight loss is your goal. Try putting your target weight into the calculator – work from that.

Net Calories

If I am exercising in my normal manner, I live by net calories. My calorie target for the day plus what I “earn” exercising less what I eat. When I cannot exercise “properly” as is the current case, I aim for less than my BMR. At the moment I aim for 1,200 calories a day or less, with the odd 800 calorie day thrown in for good measure.

When I fill up my car the fuel tank capacity limits how much I can put in. Unless the car burns the fuel, no more will fit. Humans are not limited in the same way – if we don’t burn it, we just expand to make room (store the fuel).

Record, Record, Record

I cannot stress strongly enough to record your food intake. If you are anything like me, you forget that snack you had at 10 am. Or you don’t realise that SMALL muffin you grabbed en route home from the pharmacy was actually 530 calories! I use My Fitness Pal, there is Cronometer and various other apps out there. Find one that you like.

Recording means measuring. Get food scales. Measure.

Dietary Protein

My next tip is to look at your dietary protein. Are you eating enough protein? From talking to people I suggest many, especially older people living alone, are not eating enough protein. Without enough protein we can feel hungry and snack (usually on carb heavy stuff) unnecessarily.

My interest in dietary protein came about from my own experience. I noticed my protein levels had dropped when I reviewed my My Fitness Pal recording at one stage back in 2017. I was also in more pain from my psoriatic arthritis, although I wasn’t thinking of a causal link. I upped my protein for general health reasons and suddenly my pain levels dropped. Hmmmm, I thought. At the physiotherapist, I picked his brains, “Are you aware of any research around dietary protein and pain levels?”. No, he wasn’t aware of any so I came home and researched. This is one of the articles I found, which I rather like as it is succinct in stating the findings.

Effects of inflammation and/or inactivity on the need for dietary protein

Remember too that a 100 gram steak is NOT 100 grams of protein. It is about (depending on cut, quality, etc) 23 grams of protein. Know your protein sources.

Serving Sizes

All food packets have a recommended serving size. These are guidelines, not mandatory rules. Most bread packets have a serving size of two slices. I do not need two slices of bread under my omelette (see main photo above), I won’t burn that extra fuel.

My favourite high fibre muesli has a serving size of 45 grams. I have 35 grams with 160 grams of high protein yoghurt. I don’t miss the 10 grams, but over a week it adds up to less calories.

Adjust serving sizes to suit your circumstances. When I’m able to lift weights again, I’ll go back to 45 grams of muesli!

Ease of Preparation

Some people love cooking, others do not. Other people have physical challenges around standing chopping up vegetables, for example. Some of us have days where our medical conditions flare. Living alone can result in wastage as fresh vegetables go off before we use them. How I deal with this is frozen vegetables. No, I don’t find them particularly wonderfully cordon bleu – but they serve a purpose. Prepped, pre-measured, 2.5 minutes in the microwave. Here is one instance where I double the serve – as each bag contains two standard serves.

Another variety with chicken.

I’ve found this frozen spinach great for omelettes!

Two blocks of this (about 50 grams) with two eggs. I microwave it per the first half of the instructions, drain and pop in my non-stick pan for a minute or so, pour beaten eggs over. Cook. Greens and protein in one simple meal.

I stick to fresh salad vegetables such as lettuce, cucumber, mushrooms and tomato. They are easier to buy in “as needed” quantities. Of course, as I am in isolation and receiving grocery deliveries, that is more difficult. Another benefit to frozen vegetables at the moment as I’m not dependent on deliveries to have vegetables.

Meal Replacement

Eating the increased amount of protein as discussed above and keeping calories down can be a challenge. I was also told by a friend (I have NOT substantiated this) that in some cultures older people eat very little late in the day, but it makes sense, especially when there are reduced levels of activity.

I have been replacing most evening meals with a protein shake. This brand was recommended to me by a work colleague who is a amateur marathon runner. I chose this product.

I’ve tried various meal replacement shakes and work out protein shakes over the years, but I really do like this one as it is virtually all protein and suits my particular needs well at this time. Once I’m back in the gym, I’ll change to one of their “work out” formulated products and probably not use it as a meal replacement but as a work out supplement.

The cost is $2.13 a serve, which is cheaper than a steak! I buy the large container because it is cheaper per kilo and is delivery free.

Carbohydrates

You will notice not one photo of potatoes or rice. I am a very low carb, healthy fats, high protein eater. I do eat fresh fruit: bananas, peaches, apricots, apples, grapefruit, plums, mandarins. While sugar is the bane of my existence, as it is in everything, fruit has other health benefits. I do limit my intake to two pieces of fruit maximum a day.

Did you know there is 11 grams of sugar in a cup of milk? Anything low fat is often high/added sugar. I tend to triple check the sugar content of anything that is labelled “low fat”. The version that isn’t low fat may actually be better for you.

I found a great low carb, high protein bread that is really nice, highly recommend!

Watch out for “hidden” carbohydrates. This label is a classic example.

Knowing the calorie value of each macro (fats X 9, carbs and protein X 4) my mental arithmetic could not see where the 337 calories was coming from. See the red arrow? Yes, glycerol. 4.32 calories per gram. A whopping 14.3 grams! In the USA it is required it be included in the total carbohydrates. Not in Australia, it seems. Read labels, be aware of possible hidden stuff you don’t want.

Emergencies

Have healthy food you can prepare with no effort if necessary. This prevents grabbing something carb/sugar heavy. I keep four of these in the freezer for flare days. I like these ones, but everyone’s tastes are different. Find ones you like that you can have on hand for emergencies. These two are usually on special for $4.00 each, other varieties may be dearer.

I also have tinned salmon which requires no preparation or cooking. Never run out of eggs!

Treats

Yes, treats. Gotta have treats! At nearly 65 and not aiming to appear on the cover of Vogue anytime soon, I’m not going to be a martyr.

At the moment I am alternating between two treats I allow myself, ONE treat a day.

20 grams of this:

or 67 grams of this:

The 20 grams of chocolate is basically 50% sugar – not really a good choice, I’m eating 2 teaspoons of sugar. But we have to cut ourselves a little slack!

The ice cream (comes in chocolate too) is a much healthier choice as you can see from the label. This is a serving (on a bread and butter plate).

If I am out going to the doctor or the pharmacy I may well indulge in a skinny flat white and a sweet treat – but that would be once a week at the most. More likely once a month under our current #StayAtHome rules and doctors doing telehealth!

One-liners

  • Drink plenty of water – helps you feel full
  • Watch how many coffees you have – can be 50 calories an instant coffee (4 grams raw sugar)
  • Get enough sleep (lack of sleep affects cortisol levels)
  • Eat breakfast
  • Eat slowly (mindful eating is a thing)
  • Eat ice cream with a teaspoon
  • Use smaller plates, the meals I have pictured here are on my entree plates
  • No or at least very minimal alcohol – empty calories
  • No soft drinks (unless used as a small treat)

In Conclusion

I’m reiterating: this current regime of mine is for a particular set of circumstances: minimal activity, isolation, age, pending replacement knee surgery (so very important I not gain weight), pain management requires weight management.

This is certainly not how I eat when I am weight training three or four times a week and swimming two or three times a week. It would not be how I would eat if I was 25.

Some of my weight loss this last month will have been muscle, which concerns me, but there is little I can do about that at the moment.

ALWAYS check with your health care professional for your specific circumstances!

Please ask questions in the comments, as anything you are wondering about may be a question other readers have as well.

 

Looking After Your Shoulders While We #StayHomeStaySafe

My apologies for the colour quality! With all this self isolation, I am equipment restricted! I also apologise for confusing forearm and upper arm, but you get the drift!

Please note these little videos are meant as ideas and suggestions while we are all in isolation or quarantine at home.

Bear in mind I have not assessed you personally for the appropriateness of these exercises for you. Only attempt these if safe to do so.

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!

 

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!

When Medication Messes With Your Mind

Warning: This article discusses mental health issues (medication side effect).

If you are feeling depressed, down or anxious the following support lines are available in Australia.

WHERE have I been? I had an unpleasant reaction to a medication prescribed to treat my autoimmune arthritis. It has taken me a while to feel in a position to write ANYTHING (other than a 280 character Tweet).

My usual policy is not to name medications in my articles, simply because everyone’s experiences are very different with these medications. I don’t want anyone to think negatively of a medication because of my specific experience. However, in my last article I did name the medication I had recently started, methotrexate.

I had an unexpected reaction: both my dermatologist and gastroenterologist prescribe it for conditions in their specific areas of expertise and have never had any of their patients experience a similar reaction. I did locate a study reported on Science Direct that looked at three DMARDS and mental health in rheumatoid arthritis patients: “Anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis in use of methotrexate, hydroxychloroquine, leflunomide and biological drugs“. Perhaps there are condition factors at play, but as a patient going through the awfulness, that is really, at the time, irrelevant.

There is no doubt (and plenty of supporting documentation out there) that chronic illnesses can lead to, or indeed have, depression as a co-morbidity.  I’m also well aware and have written before about the importance of maintaining our mental health, so I always ensure I am taking the recommended actions to minimise the risk for myself. This was different.

I thought the first couple of weeks were OK – not fantastic, but OK. I went downhill after that. I won’t cover the full timeline in detail, suffice to say it progressively worsened. In the earlier weeks, there were days when I would feel the cloud lift, could almost set my watch by it, which made me think my body was simply adjusting to the new medication and all would be fine. I took the fifth tablet on the Friday as scheduled (weekly tablet). By the following Monday (three days later) I was leaning against the bathroom hand basin feeling completely unable to shower, do my hair, clean my teeth. Going to work just seemed beyond the realms of possibility. I’d already had time off, waiting for this medication to kick in, I didn’t want to take more time off. I didn’t want to crawl back into bed and hide under the doona, I wanted to crawl under the bed and stay there. It was awful. I had also been crying at the drop of a hat building up to this crescendo.

I dragged myself to work that day, I’m not sure how. The first stop I made was to my wonderful pharmacist. I explained how I felt and asked could this be the medication. Call your prescribing doctor was his immediate answer. So I did. Got an appointment for the Friday of that week. This simple action did make me feel slightly better, I’d done something, I’d taken action.

By this point it was as if there were two people in my head. One, the logical, practical, ex-science student, educated systems professional saying “this is a side effect, hang in there, there is help available”. One of my other doctors, in just general discussion, has suggested that was quite likely part of my problem – I was too logical about it and should have pulled the plug earlier! He thought he’d possibly be the same in a similar situation, which made me feel better about my stubborn perseverance! The second person in my head was the emotional or psychological me just wanting to crawl up into a ball and hide from the world. At times it was like the two were at war.

Did I feel “at risk” at any stage? I don’t believe so, but the logical me kicks in again now when answering that question and says “Can you be really sure? Your mind was not yours at the time.” The best I can say is while I felt, at the worst of it, that I was drowning in some sort of deep, dark, oxygen-depleting substance, at some level I still wanted to rescue myself, to get out of the quagmire.

My prescribing specialist took me off the medication immediately, prescribed another DMARD (this is my fourth since early 2015) and told me to do a two week wash out of methotrexate before starting the new medication. He said if I didn’t feel better in two weeks to see someone (i.e. a mental health professional). I actually did a three week wash out because I had an unrelated day procedure looming in another specialty and he asked me to wait an extra week. Oh, the juggling of it all.

By the end of the following week, (two weeks having transpired since last tablet taken) I was feeling perfectly normal psychologically. Or should I say, normal for me.

Another of my specialists asked why I had been taken off the medication. My response was this.

There is a difference between wanting to die and not wanting to live, but it is a very fine line.” The former requires taking an action, the latter does not. I had at times felt the latter.

In my particular case not being able to exercise, due to the swollen foot and very grumpy shoulder, added to my “downer”. The two physical flares together made both gym and swimming activity inadvisable. I felt defeated. Exercise is not only my primary pain management tool, it is also a great mood lifter. Other clinical benefits are helping control weight and strengthening muscles, thereby protecting and supporting joints. Without exercise I felt I was losing on all fronts. I felt I was not in control of anything.

Mentally/psychologically I’m now fine, but I will never persevere as long again if I have another similar reaction to a future medication. I am aware this is the second time medication has messed with my mind, the first time being when I lost my sense of direction completely. At the time, I didn’t link that symptom to the medication I was on: I thought perhaps it was age related or similar. I’d even asked my then GP was there a test for early-onset Alzheimers as it was so debilitating and I was concerned maybe I shouldn’t be driving.

I remember being in my daughter’s car as she drove me to an appointment, fully functional GPS, very good driver (I taught her, so OF COURSE she is good). I was CONVINCED we were driving in the wrong direction. One week after stopping that particular medication (for other reasons), my sense of direction miraculously reappeared and I’ve had no problem since. No, correlation does not mean causation, but in this case, given I’d never had the problem before and haven’t had it since, I’m leaning towards it being a side effect. With two incidents now, may this indicate I have a predisposition, genetic or otherwise, for these medications to mess with my mind? I have no answer, but I’ll be super cautious from now on.

How am I, right now, physically? It is going to take up to eight weeks for the new DMARD to fully kick in; I’m in my second week. In the meantime I’m supplementing with prednisolone and the occasional Celebrex. I’ve started SLOWLY tapering off the prednisolone, but it will take time. I’m back swimming and gyming, more gently/lower intensity than previously at this point, but I’ll build back up. High reps, low weights for the moment. If I have to nominate a problem body part, it is feet and ankles which have never been a problem for me in the past. New challenges!

We are constantly learning on this chronic illness journey. For each one of us the lessons are different. This has been a difficult couple of months for me, without a doubt. My heart goes out to those people who suffer clinical depression, as I suspect what I experienced, albeit for a relatively short period, may be similar. I am so very grateful my solution was simply to remove a medication and thereby quickly regain my mental health.

On a good note, methotrexate was fantastic for my skin – the primary reason for the medication change! The UV B light therapy had worked wonders, but progress seemed to have stalled before the point of final perfection was reached. There was a small rough patch on my chest I was using as a progress gauge which had stopped reducing in circumference – a couple of weeks on methotrexate and that patch had completely resolved.

I cannot sufficiently thank my medical team, especially my GPs who again went above and beyond, providing additional support at very short notice. My daughter took a tearful phone call from me while she was still at work and spent a Sunday with me for which I was extremely grateful. I should also thank my Twitter friends for putting up with me – they didn’t know what was happening, but in some ways Twitter was a bit of a lifeline – it helped take me out of the darkness, with non-medical topics to try to focus on. I was on there WAY TOO MUCH!

I have deliberately written this article in “patient voice”. Not just for fellow-patients but for any health professionals that may wander past. None of us are alone. I realise I am taking a personal risk in publishing this: we are generally not a society that deals with chronic illness terribly well. We do much better with acute illness, where people get better. I still work in the “real world”, so publicly disclosing vulnerability can carry a price. Yet if we continue to hide ourselves away, to be silent about the challenges we face, we will not encourage change. I’m taking that risk.

If you notice a detrimental change in yourself that just doesn’t seem right, don’t try to soldier on without consulting your health professionals. It isn’t always new medications either, sometimes problems can arise after considerable time, for example two years. A special word of warning to those of us who live alone. We don’t always recognise what is happening to ourselves, especially if the change creeps up on us. We don’t have others to give us feedback. Looking back now, this was a little insidious. The accelerator really pushed down in that last week. We have to be extra vigilant, I think.

Time will of course be the judge, but hopefully I’m back on an upward path. All this because I wanted my skin back!

Footnote: This article is the third in a series detailing my medication change experiences. The first two articles are:

I Am Medication Free! For Now, Anyway……..

Right now I am medication free! No, I have not forsaken the wonders of modern medicine in any way shape or form, but in careful consultation with my rheumatologist I am taking nothing at the moment. How long this will be the case, I am unsure: we will reassess in February. If anything goes belly up, I’ll just make a phone call.

NEVER CHANGE YOUR MEDICATIONS WITHOUT YOUR DOCTOR’S APPROVAL.

Why is this happening? The medication I was on, my second inflammatory arthritis medication, was GREAT for the arthritis. However, it is considered not so great for my skin. This is my left arm a couple of days after the biopsies. This is the worst patch, always has been the problem area. Ignore the scar circled in black – that was the result of having a run-in, literally, with a broken fire extinguisher. The area circled in green is one of the biopsy sites.

Why is my suture not covered? Well, the steri strips started to come off, so I soaked them off. I can not use bandaids of any sort any more, my skin is so fragile – I remove them and the skin comes with them. Rather nasty, so I just don’t go there. It is bandages after bllod tests these days.

About two years ago we investigated my skin and it was then diagnosed as photosensitive eczema. It looked a little different back then. This November I have a completely different diagnosis. This does not mean the original diagnosis was incorrect – things change. In 2016 I was on different medications. Around the time of that first diagnosis I changed my arthritis medication and early this year (2018) I ceased taking medication for my hyperthyroid, having undergone radioactive iodine treatment. So a few changes in the two years.

My skin diagnosis now is atypical psoriasis, believed to be exacerbated (considerably) by my arthritis medication. My dermatologist discussed the matter with my rheumatologist and off the medication it is! I am starting UV B light therapy in the new year – can’t wait! I say atypical because it looks more like subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus (SCLE) (per dermatologist) than psoriasis, but the biopsies, thankfully, told a different story.

My nails, which usually readers never see due to my passion for polish, look like this. Not all the time, it comes and goes, but the little fingers are particularly unhappy at the moment.

The next medication in line for me, agreed to by my dermatologist, rheumatologist and gastroenterologist, is methotrexate. By the time I saw my rheumatologist, I had been medication-free for a month and I don’t feel too bad at all. I asked about the possibility of seeing how I go without any medication. Other medical professionals are investigating some other symptoms I’m experiencing, some of my blood tests have been a bit erratic – it might be easier to isolate a cause if I’m medication free. That consideration aside, the less medication the better makes me happy. Methotrexate only takes four weeks to “kick in” and I’m certainly not going to be a martyr about it – if I feel I’m going downhill, I’ll be in my rheumatologist’s office very quick smart. I have backup medications in case I flare.

As I have to change medication anyway, it is an opportune time to try and see what happens. My arthritis related blood tests have improved considerably since late 2014 when I was diagnosed.

So how am I finding it? My feet have niggled at me a few times, both my knees are slightly grumpy at night if I walk too much during the day, the base of my thumbs hurt a little bit with certain grip actions (think holding my drink bottle to unscrew the top). If I have a really busy day I do stiffen up at night – but then that is not exactly new, I don’t think it has gotten worse – it is also more likely related to the degenerative changes in my lumbar spine than the arthritis. Other than that, I can’t complain. I swam 1,100 metres today, the first time I’ve managed a swim session over 1,000 metres for quite some time. I did 40 minutes strength training yesterday, my quad strength is actually improving. I did 9,000 steps (accidentally) on Thursday with no ill effects.

My biggest concern is my fatigue/lethargy may return. For me, that was a major problem. Settling the thyroid helped, of course. Now my bloods are indicating my parathyroid is not behaving – endocrinologist appointment in January to try to get to the bottom of that.

The BEST part is I can go out in the sun – sensibly, of course. I’ve spent two years avoiding any sunlight because of my skin, slathering sun cream from head to toe: slip, slop, slapping to within an inch of my life. Yes, I still have to be Sun Smart, but at least I can be normally Sun Smart now instead of paranoid! I also feel better psychologically: I felt as if I was a constant Seasonal Affective Disorder patient.

I don’t know if I will stay free of medication for the arthritis. I see this as an experiment. I do seem to be susceptible to the side effects of medications so if I can stay as healthy as I am now, I’ll be happy. Any deterioration, I’ll be in my rheumatologist’s office. It takes a while for the drug to wash out of one’s system, so I won’t really know for three months – I’m only a third of the way through.

I am very grateful to my specialists for allowing me to try this. It would not be an ideal option for a lot of patients, I know. I am certainly not recommending what I am doing and would definitely NOT be doing it without having discussed all the pros and cons with my guardian angel doctors. I am monitoring myself carefully.

The physical fitness and strength I’ve slowly spent four years building back up has certainly helped me manage my condition so far, but no, there is no guarantee by itself it is enough.

We shall see – wish me luck!