Saturday, March 11, 2017

Open Comment Forum Again, Your Turn to Speak!

I thought today that once more I'd turn over the mike to all of you. The open comment posts have turned into some of the best read recently!

Again, you're all welcome to discuss whatever you want. If, however, anyone is searching for a topic, here's one that's a bit different: What are some of the best resources you've found online that have helped you with your knee pain (this website excluded of course; I'm not scrounging for compliments :))

Otherwise, hope you're all well, and looking as forward to the end of winter as I am (okay, none of this applies to our friends south of the equator; forgive me for being Northern Hemisphere-centric). I want to ride my bike again but it's hard when the temperature is 16 degrees at six o'clock, like today. Cheers!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Your Bad Knees Are Someone's Market Opportunity

This article recently caught my attention, with its lead:
The global knee cartilage repair market had a valuation of US$1.6 billion in 2014. The market’s valuation is expected to rise to US$2.7 billion by 2023, indicating a [compound annual growth rate] of 5.8% between 2015 and 2023.
That $1.6 billion actually sounds low to me, but still: It’s a considerable chunk of change. The estimate is from a market intelligence company that blames our increasingly sedentary lifestyle for our knee woes. Still, this isn’t an exhort-couch-potatoes-to-get-moving article.

It’s identifying a market opportunity. Yup, that’s right, your bad knees are a market opportunity. So let that sink in a little, what it means to be a market opportunity. That means there’s gold in them thar joints.

Maybe not golden outcomes unfortunately, but gold for the guy who’s wielding the scalpel and for the company that made the artificial knee joint, or that developed a process to grow cartilage cells in a lab dish, or that makes arthritis medication.

So just keep that in mind when you ask your orthopedic doctor: What should I do about these bad knees?

Most doctors are very conscientious, very ethical people, but be aware there’s a little conflict of interest tugging at even the best among them. They have become vested in surgical procedures. What would you think if you had spent many hours perfecting cartilage-trimming operations, investing in equipment for the same, receiving sizable paychecks for surgery – then someone said, “Hey, you know, clinical studies show doing that’s usually a waste of time.”

I bet on some level you’re going to resist that conclusion.

Also, all these companies that have developed drugs and procedures, they have something at stake – maybe stock prices, impatient investors, shiny new facilities. The drug makers employ pretty young representatives (my brother was married to one) who smile their way into the office of your crusty old physician, who takes some samples and maybe later writes a few ‘scrips – and that attractive young woman, she’ll know exactly how many Doctor X wrote, believe me, and she’ll be back later, trying to induce him to write a few more.

So, as a patient, you just need to remember there’s gold in your bad joints -- $2.7 billion by 2023, it appears – and that when there’s money to be made if you do thing X (surgery/medication) but no money if you do thing Y (try to heal on your own or through physical therapy), you have to be aware of that and weigh your options wisely.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

With Glucosamine Studies, It Pays to Read the Fine Print

As many of you reading this know, I’m a skeptic when it comes to glucosamine supplements for treating knee pain. Of course my usual disclaimer applies: If it works for you, go ahead and keep taking it. I don’t think the supplements are actually harmful (unless you’re diabetic). For most people, the only damage will occur in the region of their wallet.

Occasionally a clinical study on glucosamine will catch my eye. Here’s one with an impressive headline: “Glucosamine-containing supplement improves locomotor functions in subjects with knee pain – a pilot study of gait analysis.”

First, let’s get right to the researchers’ exciting conclusion:
Our data based on gait analysis using a motion capture system suggest that supplements [containing glucosamine] can increase walking speed through increased stride length and increased force of kicking from the ground during steps, and these improvements may be associated mainly with alleviated knee pain and direct effects on muscle.
Well, this certainly sounds good. But one odd thing you’ll note if you look closely at this study. There didn’t seem to be a control group. In fact, the researchers make a damning admission near the end of their article:
There are some limitations to the present study. First, it was conducted as an open label study.
Hmm. An “open label study.” What the heck is that? Well, the gold standard would be a double-blind study. In such a clinical trial, the patients don't know whether they are receiving real glucosamine or a placebo. What’s more, the “double blind” means that the researchers don't know whether they are evaluating subjects who have taken glucosamine or a placebo.

So in other words, in a figurative sense, it’s like the subjects and the researchers are both wearing blindfolds until the very end. This ensures no placebo effect for patients and also that researchers won’t be swayed when they evaluate the results, because they happen to personally believe, or not believe, in the efficacy of glucosamine.

So what would be the opposite of a double-blind study? A study where both researchers and patients know who's taking the medicine that’s supposed to improve their joint health – thus fairly effectively polluting the integrity of the results? Well, that would be – you guessed it – an open label study.

Well, if the researchers weren’t at all conflicted, this still might work. Maybe. Maybe? Ah well so much for that. Four of the authors, it turns out, work for Suntory Wellness, which made the glucosamine supplement used in the trial.

Now you’re probably wondering: Who would publish such a conflicted study?

The article appeared in a publication of Dove Press, an “open-access” publisher that has taken some heat before for its business practices and has been tarred as a “predatory” open-access scholarly publisher. Such publishers “are predatory because their mission is not to promote, preserve, and make available scholarship; instead, their mission is to exploit the author-pays, open-access model for their own profit.”

I think the very fact this study includes FOUR authors who work for the company that makes the supplement being tested, and was “open label,” should be enough to send any smart knee-pain sufferer running in the other direction. Remember to read the fine print!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Don’t Be Afraid to Question Your Doctor

Warning: this post will be only tangentially about knees.

First, I was going to write about crashing my bike last week. I went down hard at 25 miles an hour after the guy in front of me braked hard and our wheels brushed, and I ended up bouncing and sliding on the pavement. My goodness, the litany of injuries: road rash on my face, swelling over one cheekbone, sprained wrist and finger, scrape on one forearm, bruising on my hip, and then knees banged up with cuts on both and a little swelling on the right one.

I was fully clothed, this being winter, yet still the crash was violent enough that I had bloody rashes under my garments. But the upshot: a week later, I’m in pretty decent shape, and the two knees feel pretty good (the scabs aren’t pretty, but they’ll go away soon). I’m a healer! :)

So that was going to be the post, then my daughter caught the flu, and my wife called me yesterday from the pharmacy to say she had bought Tamiflu for both Joelle (7) and Elliot (three and a half). Elliot didn’t have the flu, so he would be given the Tamiflu in a prophylactic way – to hopefully lessen his chances of contracting the virus.

It cost a heckuva lot -- $78, and that’s reduced from $600 with no insurance. But something else was sticking in my mind as I got off the phone with her. Tamiflu ... Tamiflu ... hmm, what do I know about Tamiflu?

I started poking around on the internet, and immediately started getting a bad feeling about this drug. It sounded a bit controversial. It also sounded like it was of uncertain efficacy. And one side effect I found rather chilling: “neuro-psychiatric events.” So kids can have nightmares, insomnia, delusions. Those aren’t typical side effects of say aspirin or Ibuprofen.

Now for those of you who don’t know me well, let me be clear. I’m not some nutter when it comes to medicine. I’m not anti-vaccine. I’m pro flu shot. I try to keep an open mind, and always consider the scientific evidence and the statistical likelihood of outcomes.

And I have loads of respect for well-run scientific studies. I’ve cited the Cochrane Collaboration before, as they tend to do “meta-analysis,” sifting through a wide range of studies for the best ones, and then combining all the findings to reach a conclusion. Here’s what they reportedly had to say in the BMJ in 2014 on Tamiflu (underscoring is mine):
Compared with a placebo, taking Tamiflu led to a quicker alleviation of influenza-like symptoms of just half a day (from 7 days to 6.3 days) in adults, but the effect in children was more uncertain. There was no evidence of a reduction in hospitalizations or serious influenza complications; confirmed pneumonia, bronchitis, sinusitis or ear infection in either adults or children. Tamiflu also increased the risk of nausea and vomiting in adults by around 4 percent and in children by 5 percent. There was a reported increased risk of psychiatric events of around 1 percent when Tamiflu was used to prevent influenza.
That “psychiatric events” warning bothers me. Now, taken literally, an increase of pyschiatric events of 1 percent may not be much at all. As in, say that among 10,000 people with the flu, there are normally 100 “psychiatric events.” On its face, this statement implies that there would be 101 among Tamiflu takers, an increase of one in a population of 10,000. Not much to worry about there, right? Hardly even statistically significant.

Yes, seemingly, but – the nightmares and delusions appear to have a long anecdotal tail when it comes to Tamiflu. Japan banned its use for teens after a couple of suicides and other incidents, including some kid running into traffic. Now, a hundred anecdotes don’t make a statistic, and it could be just some bad batches of Tamiflu, or the kid was going to dart into traffic anyway – but it is a little disconcerting that these cases pop up with some frequency on the internet.

What’s Tamiflu doing in the brain anyway, you fledgling biologists might wonder. Isn’t there this thing called a brain-blood barrier that effectively blocks most chemicals from crossing into the seat of our reasoning mind? Apparently, Tamiflu normally can’t cross the channel. But when the tissue is inflamed, as with a flu, the barrier may become more permeable.

May be. Perhaps. Some incidents. Anecdotes. This isn’t hard science. Hell, I’d the first to admit that I haven’t done a helluva lot of research. But I did call the doctor who prescribed it. Once upon a time, before my knee pain saga, I never would’ve done such a thing. But I’m a bit bolder now. Doctors don’t always get things right. So I asked her reasoning for prescribing this drug.

She explained that she presented it as an option; she didn’t recommend it. She was very nice the whole time we spoke. My tone was perhaps a touch less friendly. But something she said surprised me: A mother had called her office that very day saying her daughter was taking Tamiflu and having delusions. The doctor, thank goodness, told her to take the child off the drug. (Full disclosure: she did say it was the first case of delusions directly reported to her in 14 years of practicing.)

In the end, I told my wife that it was partly her decision too whether to give it to the kids. Me, I wouldn’t. I’m ready to put the whole $78 of the stuff right out on the doorstep, if someone else wants to roll the dice with it. This anti-viral medicine seems to be powerful stuff. I don’t like giving my kids stuff that powerful unless they absolutely need it.

My daughter had a temperature of 104.7 yesterday. Today it’s about 101 and going down. I think she’s going to be fine.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

On Skepticism About Cartilage Healing

Recently I’ve seen some comments popping up questioning the idea that cartilage can heal. So I wanted to devote a post to that. Some of what I’m about to say will sound a bit different from what’s in Saving My Knees, because my thinking has changed somewhat. However, my belief that damaged cartilage can improve remains as strong as ever.

First, what’s changed: I don’t see knee pain through such a cartilage-centric lens anymore. Knee pain sufferers often do fine with some cartilage defects, and curing these shouldn’t become an obsession. I did note in the book that some people with cartilage defects have no knee pain; others that appear to have fine cartilage have lots of knee pain. Cartilage flaws and knee pain certainly don’t correlate perfectly.

Do I still think my problem was my knee cartilage? I think that was at least some of it, yes. My knees made awful crunching noises; they are much quieter now. But how much of that could be from improvements in the synovial fluid and how much from better cartilage? On that, I honestly don’t know. What’s changed in my analysis: I think some of my problem lay in the bone endings and could have been detected with a bone scan.

Again, these are just theories. What I do know is I had knee pain that the best doctor I saw said would never get better, and I smiled outwardly and inside I said, “Screw you, I think you’re wrong.” And I devoted more than a year of my life to proving he was. Recovering from chronic knee pain was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the achievement I’m most proud of (getting into Harvard was only about doing well on some tests and writing a good essay by comparison; I am extremely proud of my children, but they are their own accomplishment).

Occasionally – and I must say very occasionally, because this blog has some really terrific followers – I catch a whiff of a newcomer probing, trying to figure out what kind of fraud I might be. “Hmm, cartilage can heal? Curious that this fellow says so, when my doctor says it can’t, and my physical therapist says it can’t. But I bet you can sell a lot of books that way. So let’s see if he can produce some evidence that his cartilage regrew.”

(Please check out this post where I address head on the question “Why don’t you get a second MRI to show all the cartilage healing that you claim occurred?”)

My more expansive reply to a skeptic is: Don’t get distracted by thinking your end goal is to walk out the other end of the tunnel with pristine cartilage. That’s a waste of time. You need for the cartilage to get stronger, more resilient, more capable of handling day-to-day loads. Whether it’s once again as smooth as a baby’s bottom ... that’s not the main issue.

Today, I feel confident that mine is much stronger than it was than when I had constant knee pain.

But let’s backtrack for a moment and tackle the tough question directly. Can cartilage improve? Can it be restored in spots where it’s vanished? On this, don’t waste your time looking at my knees. Just consider the studies I cited in the book. There were two that I recall; they’re in the bibliography for anyone to track down.

Let’s consider one briefly. It’s called “A Natural History of Knee Cartilage Defects and Factors Affecting Change.” You can find it here (at least until it disappears behind a paywall, which I hope it never does, but one never knows).

What amazed me about this study, and I hope this came across in the book, is that researchers found that cartilage defect scores got better at about the same rate they got worse. Also, this was the same for knee pain sufferers as for pain-free subjects. At the time, the implications seemed mind-blowing. Changes in cartilage are a two-way street. You don’t just get worse.

So you may wonder: Well, those that got better, what were they doing differently? Answer: we don’t know. Notice this study is called a “natural history.” That means the point wasn’t to test whether walking or Pilates is better for rehabilitating bad knees; it was simply to observe the knees of more than three hundred subjects over a longish (two-year) period and see how they changed naturally.

Do you get why that’s so great? Think about it for a moment. People who weren’t trying to do anything in particular to “save their knees” saw an improvement in cartilage defects over this period. Imagine what they might have accomplished had they actually been trying to save their knees! I can’t tell you how much this study buoyed my hopes. I drank it down like a thirsty man with a glass of cold water and, once I fully grasped the implications, thought to myself, “Damn, I really can do this.”

And then there's also this other study (“Factors Affecting Progression of Knee Cartilage Defects in Normal Subjects over 2 Years”). It showed five cases where researchers saw bare bone on an MRI and two years later, in four of those cases, some cartilage had appeared (Rheumatology 2006, 45:79-84, page 81). That table I reference is in the upper left; an image showing improvement is below. Check it out.

Could it be that all these MRI readings were wrong, that the researchers are fraudulent, that the whole thing is some lousy hoax? Of course, but it’s also possible that my mild-mannered mother is secretly a Russian agent. Lots of things are possible. But what makes more sense: that we’d be created with bodies containing some tissue that just wears out, and that’s it, or that it have some capacity to heal, at least slowly? (After all, most of the rest of our body can heal; even neural networks can rewire after damage.)

I operated on the optimistic premise – not because I’m some dumb Pollyanna. I actually skew more toward the dark-humored pessimistic end of the spectrum. I operated on the optimistic premise because, at the end of the day, it seemed most rational. And it was.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Another Success Story, With a Twist

I love success stories. I share them as often as I can. I know readers of this blog are hungry for clues as to how to heal their ailing knees. So I’m happy to share one today that popped up in the comments section. However, I do so with a big caveat.

It’s basically a “train through the pain” approach. This is NOT how I healed, and it could further damage your knees. Just be aware of the risk.

Why share it then?

Because, honestly, one thing I’ve gotten more humble about: healing knee pain can be very tough, and different knees sometimes respond well to different things. Also, author Tim Howell is clearly a really bright guy who thought a lot about what was wrong with his knees and how to fix them, and I think hearing from people like that is always valuable.

It’s possible someone out there may see himself/herself in this story, and what Tim did could help that person. I can think of at least one comment I’ve gotten on this blog in the past six years where a person said that his knees benefited from a pretty vigorous, heavy-load workout.

So here it is below, edited some for space (Tim wrote it quite well, so it was hard to edit.) To read the full version, just go here to the top of the comments section.
"I've been checking in on your blog ever since I first developed my knee problems. First, I should say that I did not get better use the low-load, high-rep motion approach that you advocate. Direct heavy strength training is what has eventually cured me and it was a long road (3 years) of trying everything else first.

"My patellofemoral pain began a month following 'routine' meniscus surgery. Initially it was palmed off by doctors as normal post-surgical pain. But it began to get worse. The pain was directly behind the patella, very sharp in nature and the knee would give way going downhill /downstairs. Any movements placing load on the patella (leg extensions/ squatting) were impossible due to the pain, and the knee would often get hot and achy at night. Walking on the flat or uphill produced no symptoms.

"I spent one year being a good boy and doing everything the physios told me to. Nothing worked. Hip strengthening, ankle strengthening, lots of semi-squat variations, VMO contractions. As I began to get desperate and my mental health took a dip, I lost faith in the patellofemoral diagnosis and began to see it as a way for people to say they had no idea. I spent a few months just trying to completely rest. This made my painful symptoms worse. At this point I had discovered your blog and book.

"I abandoned my doctors and physios, self diagnosed myself as having chondromalacia and made a plan to walk myself better. This was a major error on my part (don't get me wrong Richard, your blog/book helped in many other ways). I had no imaging evidence to suggest I had chondromalacia and was going purely off symptoms and presentation.

"Fast forward one more year. I had put myself on 'cartilage time' and had accepted that it was going to take a while to improve, but nothing was happening, no signs of improvement. Plus I never had any trouble when walking (first red flag) in the first place so there was no way to see the pain going down as I increased my step count etc. I also experimented with very light cycling and swimming, but also had no improvement.

"I tried a bunch more things, all getting more bizarre (think pulleys and carabiners) to try and gradually load my patellar cartilage and coax it to regenerate, before eventually throwing in the towel and having a long hard look at the situation. At this point I made my first good decision and got imaging done (X-ray, MRI, ultrasound). Shocker = everything inside looks perfectly healthy. No chrondromalacia.

"So spending a bunch of money to get those two words of information changed everything. I decided
A. to have a really good second look at patellofemoral pain syndrome and find out if it really was just a catch-all and
B. I was gonna find a health care professional who actually knew what they were talking about. I saw A LOT of different people. I gradually worked up the pyramid of expensiveness until I was seeing doctors of national sports teams.

"Things learned on this leg of the journey:

"1. Some people will have no idea about knees, will quote the textbook to you and will pretend to demonstrate how badly your patella is 'mal-tracking' and will give you the same 4 hip, ankle and VMO exercises that everyone else does. They cannot help you. Ditch and move on.

"2. Some will suggest that you go and have surgery again, and will be very convincing. My advice - put this as a last resort and try everything else before you let them cut you open.

"3. Some will advocate stem cells, PRP, prolotherapy or viscosupplementation. I say go ahead with trying any of these that you can afford, but say no to cortisone. If they offer you cortisone, you say no. Do some research. I could only afford an ostenil injection; it made no difference.

"4. Very few doctors will suggest a change from the standard knee rehab rubbish. But those who do may ask some VERY IMPORTANT questions: What have you already tried? Have you tried training strength through the point of pain? What happened? What changes in your knee after a good warm up?

"I didn't know it at the time but those questions are the key (or at least were for me) to beating the mystery that is patellofemoral pain.

"-Have I tried training through the point of pain? Yes, in the early days of flailing around. What happened? I was in worse pain than before for about a day afterwards and then back to normal pain levels. I assumed this was a bad sign so did no more.

"- What changes in your knee after a good warm up? I had no idea, so I tried. I did a 30 minute 'patella-focused' warm up (look up sissy squats). Minutes 1 - 15 were very painful. Minutes 25 - 30 were surprisingly more comfortable and I could bend the knee a tiny bit further. Gradually over two months I noticed that although my knee was as bad as ever normally, that towards the end of the sissy squat warm up they would feel much better. Additionally the giving way would stop happening by the time the knee was all warmed up. Worryingly I did seem to have more pain than usual later in the day after a session, but overall I wasn't declining so I carried on.

"Time to test the next question - What happens if you train beyond the point of pain? So following a good warm up of sissy squats (was now taking about 15 mins to get to the point where my knee wouldn't give way due to the pain.) I would try and do a single pistol squat. To my surprise I could do it. It was painful but I could do it. Again I was in more pain for a day following these sessions, but the rest of the time I actually seemed to be improving.

"I continued to warm up and try pistols until one day I found I could do them without without a warm up and they were almost pain free. From there it was plain sailing as I just gradually increased training load and volume until I was doing 3x15 pistol squats no warm up wearing a 20kg vest. At this point I was completely pain free in all parts of my daily life and was very, very happy.

"I should also say that I stretched regularly, foam-rolled my newly appearing (and thus easily knotted) quads. I didn't follow a specific diet, and to deal with anxiety I took up meditation as per Richard’s advice along with the Wim Hof method. The mental health aspect of this battle is no joke and should certainly be addressed proactively.

"So I think if I had to give myself from 3 years ago some brief parting advice:

"1. Don't jump to conclusions about chondromalacia without any evidence, but if you truly do have it then be careful and measured.

"2. It might be worth trying to train through pain just once as an experiment to see what happens. Do you definitely get worse or is it only a short after-effect that then goes away? Be sure about this before you decide to throw strength training out the window.

"3. See what changes in your symptoms after a thorough warm up.

"4. Keep seeing different people UNTIL someone helps you, there are people out there who know what they're doing; they are just hard to find.

"5. If you get better share your success story."

Amen! Share your story! In the comments section below, if Tim’s around (hello?), maybe he can answer questions anyone has.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Why Knee Pain Turned Out to Be a Blessing in Disguise

Go ahead, roll your eyes. That would be my initial reaction too: “Oh no, here comes the maudlin essay on how suffering through pain strengthened his character, gave him courage and made him a better person blah blah blah.”


That’s not where this is going. Rather, I have more rational reasons for making that headline statement. My experience with knee pain taught me some excellent lessons:

* Doctors aren’t always right.

I had never thought of getting a second opinion before. Now I always consider it, especially if I have a difficult-to-diagnose problem that a doctor could easily get wrong.

* Surgery is often the best option when it’s the last option.

If not for my knee pain saga, I probably would’ve had surgery on my foot a couple of years ago. I had a problem misdiagnosed as Morton’s neuroma. I’m now convinced surgery would have been the wrong thing to do (as it would have been for my knees). Sometimes you need to be patient.

* I learned how to read clinical studies.

This is important. There are many good studies out there, some of which conflict with prevailing thinking in the medical profession. Read them. Figure out what they mean. You'll be glad you did.

* I learned to be skeptical of the “things just wear out” reasoning.

As patients age, doctors tend to be more likely to say, “Oh, that just comes with age.” Sure, some unpleasant changes in your body do come with getting older. But many can be delayed (if not prevented completely) if you take good care of your body.

* You need to be a smart patient because the problems will keep coming, especially as you age.

I’m on the wrong side of fifty now. In the past few years, I’ve had an issue with my foot, with my shoulder, and I expect more parts of my body will ache and complain in the years to come. I need to be smart about evaluating the doctors who evaluate me because there’ll be plenty more.

These are a few reasons why having knee pain was a good thing for me. I still wish I hadn’t gone through it. But it did make me better equipped to go through the rest of my life.