Archive for November, 2008

It kind of annoys me how some illnesses are considered “real” and some not – fibromyalgia is one of those controversial disorders which some doctors dismiss as depression simply because the patient is down (who wouldn’t be with daily pain??) and because none of the tests show anything abnormal. It will probably turn out that this is one of those cases of looking in the wrong place. Because the pain is felt in the muscles, doctors have tended to look at the muscles. And they don’t find anything abnormal. So they look at the joints, or the tendons, ligaments and soft tissues around the joints. Nope, still don’t find anything wrong.
Well, here’s something interesting from France -a team of researchers have found consistent abnormalities in brain function in patients with fibromyalgia. Specifically, they’ve found abnormalities of function in distinct areas of the brain independent of the patient’s depression score. Here’s what they found –

The researchers confirmed that patients with the syndrome exhibited brain perfusion abnormalities in comparison to the healthy subjects. Further, these abnormalities were found to be directly correlated with the severity of the disease. An increase in perfusion (hyperperfusion) was found in that region of the brain known to discriminate pain intensity, and a decrease (hypoperfusion) was found within those areas thought to be involved in emotional responses to pain. In the past, some researchers have thought that the pain reported by fibromyalgia patients was the result of depression rather than symptoms of a disorder. “Interestingly, we found that these functional abnormalities were independent of anxiety and depression status,” Guedj said.

The authors go on to conclude –

“Fibromyalgia may be related to a global dysfunction of cerebral pain-processing,” Guedj added. “This study demonstrates that these patients exhibit modifications of brain perfusion not found in healthy subjects and reinforces the idea that fibromyalgia is a ‘real disease/disorder.'”

I do think this is good news. It means that doctors are beginning to discover something about what kind of disorder fibromyalgia is. But I do despair about this continued categorisation of disease into “real” or not. (with “not” usually being categorised as mental illness) Mental illnesses, such as depression, should be diagnosed in their own right, not as what’s left over after a battery of tests are returned with “normal” stamped on them!

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Barack Obama’s Acceptance Speech

I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed, moved and inspired by a politician’s speech, than I am by this one.

His beliefs about the possibility of change, the importance of hope and the need for people to join together to act as adults really strike the right chord with me.

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Heading south

Looked up to see what the noise was……..

Heading south

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In an excellent article in the BMJ, Nicholas A Christakis, professor of medical sociology at Harvard, asks the questions all doctors (and their patients) should be asking. He points out that too often these days we misunderstand (or maybe misuse) the results from drug trials.

Doctors say that a drug “works” if, in comparison with the control arm of a clinical trial, significantly more people in the treatment arm respond. Unfortunately, this is a naive oversimplification, and it breeds complacency among patients and physicians alike

He points out that it is frequently the case that a drug which is shown in trials to help more patients than a placebo or other treatment, very often actually only delivers this benefit for the minority of patients who are actually prescribed it. I’ve quoted Dr Roses of GlaxoSKF a few times on that same point!

Countless drugs that have been shown in randomised controlled trials to be effective work in only a minority of patients. Imagine that a drug worked 20% of the time in a trial, compared with 5-10% for a placebo. This is the case for drugs ranging from antihypertensives to minoxidil to cancer chemotherapy. Such a difference in a trial corresponds to an enormous effect size. However, most patients taking such drugs would not benefit—they would hardly think that the drugs “worked.” If you buy a toaster you expect it to be able to toast bread every time it is used. If it does not, you say it does not work and return or discard it. You do not take solace from the claim that, in fact, 30% of the time in the manufacturer’s laboratory the toaster did a better job in browning bread than sunshine alone.

It does amaze me that certain treatments are labelled “proven” in this way. What’s even worse though is when the prescribing doctor then seems to blame the patient for their “failure” to respond to the treatment. This leads me on to the author’s recommendation –

one appropriate reaction is to have a protocol of administration that evaluates a patient’s response. Doctors sometimes already do this in a systematic way (such as when titrating the administration of highly active antiretroviral treatment). But this practice should be more widespread and more formal

Whilst I agree with this recommendation, it still does amaze me. Don’t all doctors routinely check how every individual patient is doing?

Anyway, here’s the take home message, in the last paragraph of the article –

Just because drugs work in trials does not mean they will work in our patients. In fact, we can often expect that they will not work at all.

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My favourite Christmas lights are up and glowing again in Glasgow – this is Royal Exchange Square, where the Gallery of Modern Art is, and where you’ll find one of the loveliest Borders bookstores in the world!



I know these lights are very simple and maybe they don’t even look spectacular but I can tell you the experience of walking underneath them is really something else! Fabulous!

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There’s quite a trend in recent years towards Public Health measures centred around what you might call “technical fixes” – the idea that a technology of some kind can improve health. The technology of choice, of course, is pharmacology and we are bombarded with messages that various different drugs should be taken by increasingly large proportions of the population in order to achieve greater Public Health. I think this is a myth. It’s part of the larger myth that science and technology will allow us to control Nature, to set out how we would like life to be and to achieve those goals. There’s an awful lot of sloppy thinking on this subject. Quite often we are told that a particular drug has the ability to be “life saving”. Drugs don’t save lives. At best they alter the death experience, but everybody dies from something and drugs actually don’t let you be sure that YOU, the individual YOU, can avoid a certain kind of death.

Take death from heart disease and strokes for example. We’ve been told that everyone should take aspirin because if everyone took aspirin then a lot less people would die from heart attacks or strokes. Listen carefully to that advice because it is a statistical statement – if MOST people took drug x then LESS people would die from y. That’s not the same as saying that if YOU took drug x then YOU would be less likely to die from y. The difference might seem subtle but it’s significant. The difference is ignored by people who suggest that we are all the same and we should all follow the same course of action. For example, a few years back some doctors and scientists promoted the idea of a “polypill” which every adult should take so that the death rate from certain diseases would be reduced. (what the authors didn’t seem to think about was what, if they were correct, would all these people die from instead? Don’t you think that matters?)

In this week’s BMJ there is an editorial summarising the studies of populations taking aspirin and their conclusions are clear.

These result support the concept that risk assessment alone cannot predict which patients will benefit from aspirin. In fact, the only predictor of clinical response to aspirin is a history of a major coronary or cerebral ischaemic event, as defined by the previous meta-analysis

In other words, there is only a statistical benefit from aspirin in patients who have already experienced coronary or cerebral ischaemic disease (that’s angina, heart attacks or strokes primarily). In the population who haven’t experienced one of these diseases there’s no benefit from taking aspirin.

Buried in the text of the article is this statement too –

However, not all patients with cardiovascular disease respond to aspirin, as shown by a recent meta-analysis of aspirin trials in peripheral artery disease

So beware of taking these messages at face value. It seems that only those who have already developed cardiovascular disease may be helped by taking aspirin and of these not all will get the benefit.

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