“Chronic. Fatigue. Syndrome. It’s An Illness.” – May 12: ME/CFS Awareness Day

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I went to my PCP (that’s Primary Care Provider for those who don’t know) last week for my monthly visit, and a new nurse takes me back to the room. It went something like this…

Her: “You’re here for a follow-up for…?”

Me: Chronic fatigue Syndrome.

Her: Oh, fatigue. So you’re tired a lot.
(As she starts looking for the computer’s questionnaire for “fatigue” patients…)

Me: No. Chronic. Fatigue. Syndrome. It’s an illness, and it’s in there.

She continues sorting through, finally finds it, where I helpfully point out it’s listed as just “Chronic Fatigue,” but reassure her it has the right questions. The screen is huge, and I’ve done this so very many times…

She begins reading through the questionnaire the computer provides:

Her: And when did this start?

Me: 1999
(by now I know she’s NOT in the right place, she’s doing a new patient questionnaire, not a follow-up…)(sigh)

Her: And what brought this on: stress, viral infection, accident, yada yada yada…

Me: (hard stare)
Me: (thinking: do I really want or need to get into this with this ignorant nurse who couldn’t care less? I have a blazing migraine and ear infection and just want to see my most excellent doctor. I am not in the mood to patiently educate yet another nurse today.)
Me: Possibly a lot of things, but even scientists don’t know for sure what causes it.

Her: (she looks up briefly, startled)
Her: Oh… Is it relapsing, constant, or getting worse?

Me: Constantly getting worse.

Her: Are your symptoms worse after physical activity?

Me: Oh, are they ever.

Her: And do you have: unrefreshing sleep… impaired cognitive ability… decrease in activity level that interferes with normal activities… migraines or other headaches… muscle pain… weakness… gastrointestinal pain or bloating… etc etc etc

She glances over and sees me nodding my head, yes, to everything.

Her voice has gotten softer and lower as she’s moved down the list, and she trails off before she gets to the end. She wound up not asking me all the questions, and I should know, having done this once a month for years.

Me: I can make it easy for you. I have every single one of the dozens of symptoms on the list, with exception of diarrhea.

She looks at me with surprise.

Me: Next section: Yes, medications help, to some extent, but not enough.
Me: Yes, they cause lots of side effects, such as nausea, heartburn, headaches, etc. I take meds to deal with the side effects of my meds, but no, it’s not nearly enough. I’ve been housebound since 2007.

Me: Next section: yes, I’ve tried supplements and they do help, as does meditation, massage, and physical therapy. Acupuncture was questionable.

She is busy clicking boxes.

I really couldn’t tell, when she left, if she was upset at the thought of an illness that she’d never heard of causing such issues for such a long time, if she was overwhelmed, or just didn’t care. She didn’t look up when she stammered, “I hope you get to feeling better soon.” But as I reflect back on it, her shoulders were hunched, and she kinda looked like a dog who has been beaten… or maybe like someone about to cry. I honestly don’t know. I wasn’t mean or snippy, I was just matter-of-fact.

This is what it is.

I rested my blazing head down on the edge of the table, closed my eyes against the too-bright lights, and practiced my deep breathing while I waited for my doctor to come in. I couldn’t wait to get back home, away from the lights, the ordinary sounds of life, that brought such searing pain to my oversensitive brain, back into my girl cave and the dark and quiet… one breath, one moment, at a time… but how I longed to set foot in a store, or just ride in the car without sunglasses and a scarf over my eyes…

But, This is what it is.

And what it is, is known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in the U.S., although in other countries – and by the WHO – what I have is ME: Myalgic Encephalomylitis.
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Frank Talk On Pain Meds: Introduction – Jumping Off Into The Vast Unknown

Those of you who know me know I am all about being 100% honest and real, all the time. No little white lies. No quiet deception. Well, it’s not going to get any more real than this series, Frank Talk On Pain and Pain Meds, and what’s to follow in the next few months.

The issues of pain, pain meds, and the relatively new medication, LDN (Low Dose Naltrexone), have consumed my world for the last 3 weeks, as I wrestled with, and then came to what, to some, will seem like a rather drastic and risky decision: to get off the opioid (sometimes called opiate, or, erroneously, narcotic) pain meds that I have been on for the past ten or eleven years, in order to give LDN, a trial run.

You can’t have it both ways – it’s one or the other.

This was not an easy decision, nor one to be made lightly.

The pain that ME/CFS and FM (fibromyalgia) patients like myself experience is very real, very intense, and a constant part of our daily life.

Even with opioid pain management, there is no such thing as a day without pain. It’s a matter of degress, of where does it fall on the 0 (no pain) to 10 (excruciating) pain scale. I haven’t had a single moment at less than a 3 in as long as I can remember, with 4, 5, 6, and sometimes, even 9.5, being a regular part of my daily life.

Those of us who are lucky enough to be on opioid pain medications know just how lucky we are, as we all have friends who aren’t so lucky. Chronic pain is both emotionally and physically draining.

As I discussed my idea with a few famly members and friends, and reflected on the past, I realized exactly how much misinformation, misunderstanding, and what a terrible stigma there is around the use of opioids in chronic pain patients.

It turned out I had a lot to say about it, but, as I started weaning myself off the opioids I have been on for more than a decade on March 25th, maintaining a clear and rational thinking pattern has been quite challenging at times (perhaps the understatement of the year). Believe me, I’ve tried to whittle this down, but am tired of editing, so here it is:

Frank Talk On Pain and Pain Meds:

My stated goal:


To go from 80mg Oxycontin daily with up to an additional 10mg of oxycodone IR for breakthru pain, to LDN, and to do it as fast as I can physically and mentally handle it – and to share this journey into uncharted waters with you.

Because I don’t know of anyone who has gone from 10+ years of opioid use and then onto LDN, I feel a certain responsibility to share this experience with you, my friends and fellow patients, in case you, too, are contemplating the same choice.

Withdrawal is not fun, I can tell you that now, but then, you didn’t think it would be, did you? What I’ve been experiencing will be the subject of future posts.

As of today, April 14th, I’ve cut my dose down to about 40mg a day. Just about half way there, but possibly going a bit too fast – more on the delights of withdrawal in future posts.

My Reasoning

The stigma that surrounds opioid use is one reason behind my decision, as my PCP, who has been handling my pain management, was out on maternity leave for 3 months, and I was faced with uncooperative members of her practice who left me wondering, day to day, whether I was going to run out of my meds or not. During an appointment with another provider, I was treated like a drug seeking addict.

I am not addicted to my pain medications, as I explained to her. I am physically dependant. There’s a huge difference, one she should have known. I explore these differences in Part 1: Pain, Pain Meds, Opioids, Addiction and Dependance.

I left feeling absolutely humiliated, and with only a few days worth of meds. My awesome PCP soon came to my rescue, despite being still out on leave, but the experience left me pondering the precariousness of my situation.

The other reason behind my decision was recent research and articles I have read touting how effective LDN is, not only for relief of pain, but also possibly for assisting the immune system to re-balance – something I am increasingly in dire need of.

I spent several days in deep contemplation and research, before finally deciding to take the plunge.

Much to my relief, my awesome PCP is behind whatever decision I make. As her large practice’s fibromyalgia specialist, she has already put several patients on LDN, with good results.

Read on, please, and feel free to share and comment!

Frank Talk, Part 1: Pain, Pain Meds, Opioids, Addiction and Dependance

If there is one subject that is the least spoken about in the ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia (FM) communities, both between patients and also between patients and our own family members and friends, I think that subject must be the use of opioid (sometimes erroneously referred to as narcotic) pain meds to treat our pain issues.

There are so many misconceptions about the nature of pain in our illnesses, and even more about the use of opioid pain medications, I think it is time for some frank talk about these subjects.

Frank Talk On Pain and Pain Meds:

Pain: The Problem

The pain of ME/CFS and FM is very real, very strong, and usually constant: a deep aching in the muscles and bones; frequent, if not constant, headaches and migraines; tenderpoints and triggerpoints – knots easily felt by anyone in the muscles and the fascia, the covering of the muscles (myofascial pain syndrome).

There is also a generalized tenderness, and in some cases, extreme sensitivity. Sometimes, the weight of the bedsheet is too much, too painful, to bear. Sometimes, the lightest touch, like the gentle brush of a lover’s hand over an arm, burns like a scald from boiling water.

There are complicated medical reasons: too much “Substance P,” the chemical that transmits pain signals; an over-active neurological system; the build-up of excessive amounts of lactic acid (that stuff that makes you healthy people have sore muscles after working out); and even more, convoluted, biological reasons that I can’t pretend to understand.

To top it off, we often have many other co-existing factors: deep muscle spasms; osteochondroitis (inflammation in the tissues between the ribs, making just the act of breathing incredibly painful); inflammatory arthritis; restless-leg syndrome; gout or pseudo-gout; injuries that don’t heal; incredible foot pain (plantar’s fasciitis comes to mind)… the list goes on and on.

Our pain is real.

It is intense.

It never let’s up.

It keeps us awake at night, thrashing in bed, trying to find a comfortable position – an impossibility when you hurt everywhere.

Pain Meds: No Easy Solution

Because our pain is not simple, and has multiple biological and neurological causes, treating it is also not simple.

We almost all take a cocktail of meds designed to have some impact on our pain levels, from Lyrica (an anti-seizure medication) to a variety of different antidepressants. These all work to alter our brain chemistry in ways that are sometimes not even understood, to help reduce our perception of pain.

But the simple reality is, those barely scratch the surface for the majority of us. One in six Lyrica users finds it to be moderately useful, for example. Hardly an astoundly good result.

So, what about Aspirin, Tylenol, Advil, and Aleve?
For the overwhelming majority of us, they have ~zero~ effect on our pain. Our pain is of a different origin than what they are made to treat.

Pain Meds: What Works?

The new med in town is LDN, Low Dose Naltrexone, currently in clinical trials, for fibromyalgia. But for many of us, this comes years too late – many of us have been sick and in pain decades. (Note: You can’t take LDN if you are already on opioids.)

There is only one class of pain medication that reliably works: opioids, or, as they are sometimes called, opiates.

What are we talking about? For the vast majority of us, if we have a compassionate and knowledgeable doctor, we are prescribed two different formulations of the same medication, oxycodone. The first is Oxycontin, which is a time-release form, to cover the bulk of our pain.

The other is an immediate release oxycodone, in a much lower dose, for “break-thru” pain – the pain that roars up like a lion, irregardless of the Oxycontin. One example: periodically, I have to leave the house, for doctor appointments, etc. Being vertical sets off the pain in my back, which locks into rock hard spasm. It feels like I’ve been stabbed with a butcher knife & someone is slowly twisting the blade. Literally.

There are a number of other opioid pain medications, like methadone, hydrocodone, etc. But they aren’t prescribed as often.

According to one study I ran across, Oxycontin is what approximately 40% of Fibromyalgia patients take.

What about the other 60%? Good question.

Doctors are more and more hesitant to prescribe opioid pain meds, as the FDA cracks down on doctors running “pill mills,” and good doctors get investigated in the process. Every patient asking for opioids is treated like a drug-seeking addict, and often turned down flat out.

So, the rest suffer, their pain untreated. Even the ones lucky enough to have a doctor who will prescribe for them may be undertreated, as tolerance develops fast, and doctors resist raising the dose.

The Opioid Stigma: Oxycontin & Oxycodone

Most of the time, the only time the public hears about Oxycontin is when a celebrity goes off to rehab for Oxycontin addiction, or there’s a high-profile overdose of somebody who was not a pain patient, who was buying it off the street. Often, in those cases, Oxycontin is referred to as a “narcotic.”

“Narcotic,” however, is more a legal term than a medical one. Many drugs are legally classified as narcotics, and some have nothing at all to do with pain management.

Medically speaking, the medications we take for pain control are opioids.

But all this sets up a stigma in the public’s mind, which is why we patients, desperately in need of pain management, and offered Oxycontin and oxycodone, don’t speak of it much, to anyone.

The reaction of even close family members can be terrible, with accusations we are addicted to our pain meds, and threats of intervention or rehab.

It’s often extremely difficult – or impossible – to get people to understand that we have a right to live without constant pain, and that pain meds, including opioids like Oxycontin and oxycodone, can be prescribed and used responsibly, without our becoming drug-crazed addicts!

So we stay silent.

Addiction vs. Physical Dependance

This is what we most need you, our family and friends, to understand: the very big difference in addiction and physical dependance.

In 2001, the American Academy of Pain Medicine, the American Pain Society, and the American Society of Addiction Medicine jointly issued “Definitions Related to the Use of Opioids for the Treatment of Pain.”

Please read – and re-read if necessary – until you understand the terms involved with pain management and addiction:

  • Addiction is a primary, chronic, neurobiologic disease, with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. It is characterized by behaviors that include one or more of the following: impaired control over drug use, compulsive use, continued use despite harm, and craving.
  • Physical dependence is a state of being that is manifested by a drug class specific withdrawal syndrome that can be produced by abrupt cessation, rapid dose reduction, decreasing blood level of the drug, and/or administration of an antagonist.
  • Pseudo-addiction is a term which has been used to describe patient behaviors that may occur when pain is undertreated. Patients with unrelieved pain may become focused on obtaining medications, may “clock watch,” and may otherwise seem inappropriately “drug seeking.” Even such behaviors as illicit drug use and deception can occur in the patient’s efforts to obtain relief. Pseudo-addiction can be distinguished from true addiction in that the behaviors resolve when pain is effectively treated.
  • Tolerance is the body’s physical adaptation to a drug: greater amounts of the drug are required over time to achieve the initial effect as the body “gets used to” and adapts to the intake.

Before you accuse or insinuate that someone taking opioid pain meds is “addicted,” learn what that term really means, I beg you. Oxycontin and other pain meds are sanity-savers for those of us with ME/CFS & FM. We become physically dependant, yes, but many meds cause dependancy, including blood pressure meds, antidepressants, seizure meds, and many more.


It is a small price to pay for relief of the never-ending pain.

Please leave your thoughts below.