Saturday, June 17, 2017

Fake News, Medical Edition

There is something that’s not quite fake news, but possibly more dangerous, in the world of medicine.

First, what would you think if you had chronic knee pain and came across this intriguing item?
High quality (pharmaceutical grade) chondroitin sulfate is as good as a widely prescribed non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (celecoxib) for the treatment of painful knee osteoarthritis, according to a British study published in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases.
Your reaction might be something along the lines of “Sign me up for that!” Especially when, upon doing a little investigating, you discover that chondroitin sulfate is an over-the-counter supplement – much cheaper and easier to obtain than celecoxib. What’s more, it’s naturally found in cartilage.

The problem is, high-quality studies have found it’s basically useless, just like glucosamine.

So what’s going on with this new study? I was curious and tracked down the full write-up here. But I wasn’t looking for details such as the number of people who took part, the methodology, confidence intervals for the results, etc.

This time, I was looking for something different: a certain taint that is increasingly a problem with published clinical studies. It took me a lot of – I mean, a LOT of – scrolling to find it. But at the end, neatly dropped in like an insignificant afterthought, there it was:
The study was sponsored by IBSA Institut Biochimique SA, Pambio-Noranco, Switzerland, a pharmaceutical company marketing Chondroitin Sulfate. The manuscript was entirely written by the first Author (JYR) who received an editorial assistance from IBSA. However, IBSA has no influence on the content of the manuscript. The editorial assistance was limited to the final editing of the manuscript and the submission process through the ARD website.
Which raises a host of questions: (1) If the study happened to find that chondroitin sulfate was useless, or even worse, harmful in some way, would the results have just been quietly quashed? (2) How exactly was this study “sponsored”? How much money did the principal researchers receive? Are we to believe that the knowledge of who is writing their paychecks really has no influence on how this study is conducted and reported? (3) What exactly was the nature of this “editorial assistance” that was provided?

Upton Sinclair once wrote wisely: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

This study is not quite that kind of situation. But it’s a cousin to that kind of situation.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Open Comment Forum, Dive In!

I started scrolling through recent months, and realized we haven’t done one of these in a while. They’re extremely popular, and probably more useful than the regular posts. :)

So I invite everyone to take over the comment section and say what’s on your mind (about your knees, or matters related to your knees).

A suggestion, in case anyone’s looking for a theme: What are you struggling with most right now? What’s the one big single thing? Tell us, and perhaps the wise commentariat (that is, the very knowledgeable people who frequent this blog) can help you find a solution!

Cheers, and hope everyone is having a good spring (or fall, if you’re in Australia).

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Those Noisy Knees: Crepitus Revisited

The medical community may be realizing that crepitus is significant after all.
A study of 3,500 subjects, led by a group of researchers from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, found that those with crepitus were more likely to develop knee pain.
The findings don’t surprise me at all. Back in December 2011 I wrote about crepitus (the medical term for creaky knees). The first paragraph of this excerpt from the post, below, references an arthritis website that describes the condition:
The site also declares, incorrectly I think, "If it occurs without any pain, it is unlikely to be caused by arthritis or any medical condition, and is usually meaningless." A popular "save your knees" book on the market also asserts that that noise from your knees, unaccompanied by pain, isn't significant. I think that's wrong thinking, and dangerous. 
What if you were a ship's captain and spotted a strong beam of light through the fog? If you continued on your way without incident, you might conclude that the light was meaningless. However, if you strayed too close to the light's source -- and wrecked your ship on the rocky shores that this lighthouse was trying to warn you of -- I think you'd argue the opposite: that the light was quite meaningful indeed.
My thinking about crepitus remains pretty much the same, more than five years later.

First, when you’ve got bad knees, don’t obsess about it. For a while, I kind of did (along with eighteen other variables related to my knees as I tried to figure out how to heal them). But it’s very tricky mapping the amount of crepitus you hear in your bad knees to how well they’re healing, or not healing.

In short: Once you’ve got bad knees, monitoring crepitus probably isn’t all that worthwhile.

But as an early-warning harbinger of trouble ahead, I believe the presence of crepitus is very useful. It doesn’t mean you’ll develop knee pain. For instance, when I was thinking of doing the grueling Mount Washington “Hill Climb” on my bike, I remember a forum full of riders who had done the race, and one guy who said his knees were very crunchy, but he was asymptomatic.

However: anytime the crepitus gets worse and worse, I think you are at much greater risk of eventual knee pain. I often wonder about that rider. It’s been about a decade since I read those comments he left. Is he still asymptomatic, or is he now among the legions of people with knee pain?

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Don't Pin Your Hopes on Vitamin D Supplements

When it comes to knee pain, certain beliefs are vampire-like in their resistance to debunking. You find yourself trying to drive a stake into the heart of these beliefs, but in vain.

Basically, even when evidence-based medicine shows certain treatments and supplements don’t work, some people will continue to cling to them.

Glucosamine is one of these. It’s been extensively, thoroughly debunked as a cartilage regrower, as a pain reliever, as a function improver, but you throw a rock at a Bad Knees Convention, and you’ll hit about twenty people who swear by it. Some will say they can’t leave the house before taking their glucosamine tablet. (My standard disclaimer applies here: if glucosamine helps you, and you’re fine coughing up the money for it, go right ahead. But of course, I also believe if taping a piece of pink construction paper to your nose helps with your knee pain, that’s fine too.)

Another belief that is less widespread regards vitamin D supplements, and their beneficial effect on knee pain. When I wrote this post, I was taking vitamin D myself (not related to knee pain, which I no longer have, but rather for general health reasons). Nowadays the vitamin D fad is kind of burning out, and taking high doses has been shown to cause problems.

Yet I’m willing to bet there are still holdouts when it comes to using vitamin D to treat knee pain. So in their honor, I bring you this study, which is about a year old. The lead of this summary about it:
Vitamin D, which can reduce bone turnover and cartilage degradation, did not slow progression of knee osteoarthritis (OA) or reduce knee OA pain when tested in a randomized placebo-controlled trial.
The study included 413 patients who were considered vitamin D deficient. So, if anyone would see an improvement from taking the vitamin, presumably they would. For two years they took vitamin D (or didn’t if they were in the placebo group). Then MRIs were done and pain scores taken.

The authors concluded:
Results showed that even among study participants with low 25-hydroxyvitamin D, supplementation did not slow cartilage loss or improve WOMAC-assessed pain. These data suggest a lack of evidence to support vitamin D supplementation for slowing disease progression or structural change in knee osteoarthritis.
Fun bit of trivia: The lead researcher on this study was Changhai Ding, who also did the very first study I came across that really buoyed my hopes when I had knee problems. I mention that study in the book: it showed cartilage defects were found to improve about as often as they got worse over a two-year period. Fascinating, amazing, uplifting!

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Knee Braces: What’s Your Experience?

I dug this article on a new “bionic” knee brace out of the dustbin this morning. Yes, it’s from last year (hence the “dustbin” allusion), but the idea of knee braces intrigues me:
A pair of Nova Scotia researchers are close to producing a "bionic" knee brace that enhances ability and reduces fatigue, and have now landed a lucrative contract to produce a beefed-up version for the Canadian Armed Forces.
The so-called Levitation brace can reduce the burden of carrying heavy weights. But another intended use, the article makes clear, is for athletes going through rehabilitation.

To be fair, this very expensive, lightweight carbon brace probably isn’t the best example for a knee pain blog. It seems to compete more with robotic exoskeletons. So if you have normal knees and want to turn into Super Ant, this may be the knee brace for you. For knee pain sufferers, you can probably find something serviceable for a cheaper price (this brace costs a bit less than $2,000, from my quick Google search).

Anyway, back to the point: What’s the usefulness of knee braces? As I wrote here, the neoprene sleeve braces aren’t probably much good at all. Even so, doctors still recommend them (one advised my wife to wear one for a swollen knee).

So what’s your experience? Knee braces – worthwhile or waste of money? If you want to weigh in, please leave a comment below.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Revisiting Inflammation and the Ghost in the Machine

Amy Stevens left a good comment last week that got me thinking about the simple fact that there are so many things about chronic knee pain that we don’t understand:
I thought I was onto something by leaving work 6 months ago to rest, and I did manage to identify a lot of triggers I never suspected in that time (such as lifting the mattress a bit to make the bed each morning!) but unfortunately I have not improved simply by avoiding certain activities. My comprehensive knee diary isn't revealing any clear patterns at this point either. Interestingly, Coeliac Disease is looking increasingly likely in my case, as is the potential for my synovitis of the knees to be autoimmune in nature due to reacts to certain foods. Perhaps a change of diet will help.
Amy, by the way, often drops in to comment here, and if you haven’t clicked through on the URL embedded in her name, you should. I remember the first time I did and thinking, “Wow, what’s this all about?” She writes a blog about her adventures in Africa with her husband, Austin Stevens, who seems to be part snake wrangler and part naturalist.

Anyway, heading down this autoimmune path to try to understand one’s knee pain feels very familiar. Maybe Amy will find that certain foods trigger problems; that’s possible. Or there could be a harder-to-pinpoint systemic issue; these can be frustrating to chase.

I originally wrote about the ghost in the machine here. I followed up here about a study that showed that, contrary to what you may have been told, osteoarthritis is not the noninflammatory version of arthritis (rheumatoid arthritis supposedly being the inflammatory and out-of-control variety). Inflammation was found in osteoarthritis joints well before changes appeared in X-rays.

Why is inflammation so important? Well, in its chronic form, it can be a very destructive force from what I can tell. I know that in my attempts to heal, I was always fighting to bring that burning flame to its lowest point. I wanted as little inflammation as possible and was able to modify my behavior to achieve that. Luckily, I wasn’t working at the time and had the freedom to experiment and adjust and could reach a safe zone that I then enlarged little by little over time.

Some people can’t achieve that through modifying behavior. So what happens when inflammation sets up long-term? This is a fascinating question with no clear answer. I do wonder if inflammation in the knee may be something akin to a dog of hell on a leash that, if it isn’t brought to heel, might escape and plague your whole body. I had too many odd joint problems along with my knee pain for this to be coincidental, in my mind. When I mentioned my theory to a family doctor, he kind of pooh-poohed the idea, but now I think he was dead wrong.

Why? Not just because of my own experience, but because of your experiences. Too many of you have shared stories that resemble mine. There is something to this malevolent inflammation genie. I’m convinced of it.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Does Your Doctor Really Understand Your Level of "Physical Activity"?

I came across a study recently that came to a not-very-surprising conclusion: that a high level of leisure-time physical activity is good for your knee cartilage.

That’s nice to hear (again), but it’s hardly stop-the-presses news. Nor is it necessarily true without qualifiers. There is an appropriate amount of physical activity that’s good for knee cartilage, but you to make sure you get that amount right for you, especially if you have a difficult case of knee pain. Too much and you’ll further damage your knees.

What I found more interesting was this idea of “physical activity,” taken in its broadest sense. The study focused more on activities such as walking and Nordic walking, but “activity” can be almost anything: it’s crossing the room, kneeling to scrub the floor, walking to the mailbox, carrying your little niece on your shoulders. It’s all of that and much more.

This study got me thinking about something doctors and physical therapists usually don’t do: they don’t take anything resembling a comprehensive inventory of how you use your knees each day. Example: You have really bad knees and your doctor asks what sports you do. You say you don’t run or play basketball, but get in a few miles of slow walking each day.

Sounds great, right? So maybe your doctor writes down, “Sporting activity appropriate.” But what if you’re also lugging your two-year-old around all the time? That could be doing as much damage to your knees as playing basketball a few times a week.

In my book, I went into a lengthy criticism of a knee study that seemed to me to be a bit of a mess. One flaw concerned giving too much weight to how much time your knees spend in a certain kind of physical activity, like running or walking. That’s part of the picture, but it seems to me everything you do from the moment you wake up until you hit the sack at night is part of the picture. And if you’re not being asked about how you use your knees outside of sport, your health-care provider (or therapist) isn’t looking at the whole picture, but only at what might be a small piece.

One point I like to make about conquering knee pain is personal involvement in finding a solution. The experts are good, but they are limited: they only have a short time to spend with you, and there’s no way they can crawl inside your body and feel how your knees feel, and live with those joints for a few days to see how they’re being used, and how they’re irritated, and to what degree.

So I think it falls to everyone with knee pain to do this analysis themselves. Ask yourself, “How do I use my knees each day?” What knee-unfriendly things do I do? How much squatting, lifting, kneeling, carrying, walking? You may find activities in there you’re doing that you shouldn’t be – at least not until your knees are stronger.