January 26, 2015

Music As Instinct

Rapture, a "joy excessive and sweet," as Spain's great mystic Saint Teresa of Avila, described it in her 1563-65 diary, can be achieved variously by music, religion--and hallucinogenic drugs such as the Amazonian religion-enhancer ayahuasca. Neurobiologists have tracked at least some of the peak experience of music to at least one cause, the release of the transmitter molecule dopamine within the stratum of the brain. The same biochemical reward system also mediates pleasure in food and sex. Because music began in paleolithic times. . . and because it remains universal in hunter-gatherer societies around the world, it is reasonable to conclude that our loving devotion to it has been hardwired by evolution in the human brain. 
In almost all living societies, from hunter-gatherer to civilized-urban, there exists an intimate relation between music and religion. Are there genes for religiosity that prescribe a neural and biochemical mediation similar to that of music? Yes, says evidence from the relatively young discipline of the neuroscience of religion.
--from E.O. Wilson's The Meaning of Human Existence

I suppose that applies to rock and hip hop too. Eventually we may learn whether Franz Schubert and Justin Timberlake generate different chemical brews within the striatum of the brain. As for Jay Z, I can only wonder.

January 3, 2015

Take This To Your Doctor

Carl Ellenberger, MD

For fifty years, I have read the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, full of rigorously peer-reviewed and authoritative scientific articles with big words like "Imatinib, Peginterferon Alfa-2a," and sophisticated statistics I may not fully comprehend. During my career, the understanding of human disease, diagnostic precision, and treatment have greatly advanced while the "practice of medicine" in the US, transformed into the colossal industry of "Healthcare," has made some people healthier and others -- especially corporate executives and investors -- wealthier. 

Lately I have started reading non-scientific articles in the NEJM like The Virtues of IrrelevanceNarrative and Medicineand Rethinking the Social History, reminding me that, despite all these new developments, the doctor-patient bond remains the most important step in the process of care, just as it had to be for Hippocrates in 400 B.C.E. 

The Virtues of Irrelevance makes the simple case for a doctor to begin a conversation before probing the medical problems: 
"I like your necklace [shoes, pin, etc] ...." 
showing interest in the person as well as the illness. I have also seen that strategy turn strangers in restaurants into friends. 

Narrative medicine seeks each patient's story, as would doctors William Carlos Williams, Oliver Sacks, Abraham Verghese, and Atul Gawande. (see * below)
"... not only is diagnosis encoded in the narratives patients tell of symptoms, but deep and therapeutically consequential understandings of the persons who bear symptoms are made possible in the course of hearing the narratives told of illness." 
See how hard it is to read medical articles? That excerpt is 'medicalese' for, "Our stories reveal who and how we are." You can't, for example, adequately understand most chronic pain, headache or backache without hearing the stories of those who have it.

Rethinking the Social History is a manifesto for "social medicine" (not "socialized medicine," a political term deriding Medicare) that
"…elucidates how patients' environments influence their attitudes and behaviors and how patients' agency -- the ability to act in accordance with their free choice -- is constrained by challenging social environments.
Translation: how and where we live affects our health. Your doctor needs to know.

As a consumer of healthcare (formerly called a patient), I can't dismiss the reality that doctors work on a tight schedule dictated by their payers (insurance companies or employers) who can financially penalize (or fire) them if their 'clinical volume' falls short. 

Seated in the exam room in a paper gown I answer opening questions like, "What are your concerns?" as the doctor examines and enters data on a screen, checks boxes, and periodically looks in my direction. He may send me for tests or up the chain of specialists. Later his office may call with results and instructions, sometimes the sole "product" of the services I hope my insurance will pay for.

Some physicians seem to avoid personal questions fearing they might run the conversation into overtime. I may remain silent for the same reason, even when my physician is a former colleague. That's unfortunate because more problems than you might think can be addressed by reaching a better understanding than by pills or injections.

When I do encounter a physician who wants to connect (most recently a podiatrist), I wonder if that behavior comes from his or her character rather than from medical education. As  conservatories may not teach musicians how to behave on stage, medical schools may not teach doctors how to listen to patients. Such skills certainly don't come though incentives from payers. I hope that when my failing parts can no longer be repaired or replaced my doctor will be one of the more human ones. (see Gawande's Being Mortal)

In my childhood doctors were thought to be the best educated and wise members in a community. Maybe that's why I admire those with non-medical interests, such as the writers mentioned above. I wonder whether their broader perspective of the human condition makes them better doctors, especially if it extends beyond playing golf, collecting wine, or watching football. When I once suggested to one of my mentors that that medical trainees read more widely, novels or poetry perhaps, he answered, "No evidence for that...."

Has making music made me a better doctor? That's difficult to measure. It helped me pay for (and survive) medical school, enlarged my network of friends and colleagues, and helped me understand the problems musicians have brought to me like dystonia (July 21, 2013), but I have no way of measuring outcomes in those cases or in others. Some may have assumed that music distracted me from medical work. Indeed, I never was a "high-performance" practitioner like an an ophthalmologist I worked with who saw 100 patients a day! But in my view quality trumps quantity, though the latter is easier to measure and reward.

I do not believe that advances in medical science require educators to stuff ever more information ("the material") into student doctors' heads. In fact, the reverse may be true; now information is in very accessible clouds. The mind is freed to connect with patients and 'apply the material.' And maybe acquire wisdom.

 "...wisdom, which is almost always another name for humility, lies in accepting one's own inevitable share in human fallibility." (Marilynne Robinson: When I Was a Child I Read Books)


*Doctor/writers mentioned above

Oliver Sacks: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales, Awakenings
Abraham Verghese: Cutting for Stone, My Own Country: A Doctor's Story, etc
Atul Gawande: Complications, Being Mortal, etc
William Carlos Williams: The Doctor Stories and any edition of Collected Poems

December 24, 2014

An die Musik

Not much to do this Christmas Eve, laid up with a cold watching the rain fall from gray skies outside. So I thought of sending this message from Franz Schubert for the holidays:


O blessed art, how often in dark hours,
when the savage ring of life tightens around me,
have you kindled warm love in my heart,
and borne me to a better world!

Often a sigh, escaping from your harp,
a sweet, celestial chord
has revealed to me a heaven of happier times,
O blessed art, I thank you for that!

Bryn Terfel and Malcolm Martineau...




By Miles Hoffman...


Schubert’s song may well be the most beautiful thank-you note anyone has ever written, but it’s also something else. It’s a credo, a statement of faith in the wondrous powers of music, and by its very nature an affirmation of those powers. We may view it as a statement of expectations as well. The poet thanks Music for what it has done for him, but there is nothing in his words that would make us think that Music’s powers are exhausted, and indeed the noble, exalted character of Schubert’s music would lead us to believe that Music’s powers are, if anything, eternal, and eternally dependable.

But just how does our gracious Art exercise these powers? How does it comfort us, charm us, kindle our hearts? We might start our search for answers by positing two fundamentals: a fundamental pain and a fundamental quest. A fundamental pain of our human condition is loneliness. No surprise here: We’re born alone, we’re alone in our consciousness, we die alone, and, when loved ones die, we’re left alone. And pain itself, including physical pain, isolates us and makes us feel still more alone, completing a vicious circle. Our fundamental quest—by no means unrelated to our aloneness and our loneliness—is the quest for meaning, the quest to make sense of our time on earth, to make sense of time itself.







November 25, 2014

Watch Your Back

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

Although this post has little to do with music, the odds are good that some musical readers will find it useful. 

Chronic low back pain is the most common cause of disability and the largest category of medical expenditure in the US healthcare system. The system's response to it is a good example of what is wrong with the system. 

Treatment consumes about $100 billion a year in the US, 9% of total health care costs, not counting the cost of lost work. The fact that more than 200 cures are currently promoted amply shows that only a few can be proven slightly better than no treatment at all -- and only in selected cases.

Most back pain (80-90%) in otherwise healthy people occurs in episodes naturally limited to less than a few weeks that don't need medical attention regardless of severity. When pain remains for more than 3 months, it is called "chronic." That's what we are talking about here. 

If you have had cancer, tuberculosis, HIV, or certain other chronic diseases this doesn't necessarily apply to you. 

In an earlier post I wrote, "...more health problems than you might think can be solved by better understanding than by pills, injections, or surgery." Back pain is one.

So if your back pain is chronic, before having another injection or operation read Watch Your Back by Richard A. Deyo, MD, Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine at Oregon Health and Sciences University who writes with the authority of broad clinical and research experience. Importantly, Deyo does not promote any particular procedure. He writes in a lively style for the general public. 

You may need to revise your thinking about this problem; doing so may change your thinking about other medical problems. Some conventional rules don't apply. For example, when you have pain, you should continue, without fear of harm, the activity that makes it happen, not try to avoid pain by resting. 

A cause in the spine may not be found even by MRI, though if you are an adult, MRI may show more than one abnormality related to normal wear, such as a bulging disk. Know that if you submit to an MRI, you are twice as likely to submit to surgery. If you submit to surgery you are ten times more likely to have more surgery within ten years. Eighty percent of post-operative patients continue to need pain killers, including opioids (aka narcotics), indefinitely.

Deyo argues persuasively that the responsibility for treating low back pain is yours, done by you, not to you, guided by 'providers' who are not invested in what they provide. A typical spinal fusion operation, a current fad done for pain with increasing frequency, distributes its reimbursement of >$100,000 to many "providers" and manufacturers (think $500 screws) but cannot be proved more effective for pain than no treatment at all. Fusion may be necessary to stabilize your spine after an injury. 

Effective treatment involves a long and difficult life-style change but is your best chance of avoiding a lifetime of disability, depression, and reliance on opioids. This treatment changes the "pain module" of the brain, not anatomy of the spine, by means of cognitive-behavioral and exercise therapy. The concept is consistent with new thinking about the brain and its plasticity--the same plasticity that enables learning of a Beethoven sonata and causes dystonia in rare instances.

I hear you saying, "That's easy for you to say, but you haven't experienced the terrible pain that I have every day. It can't be "all in my head." There must be something terribly wrong where it hurts." You're the doctor. Do something! Deyo reminds us that acute pain is a protective sensation to call attention to the location of an injury. When pain becomes chronic, that simple relationship dissolves, the brain continues to falsely signal pain even after the original injury has healed, and the treatment becomes different. It becomes useless to keep trying to repair the original stimulus that created the pain. (That's like changing golf clubs after you have hit a bad shot.) Therapeutic efforts must turn to ways to change networks in the brain, as they must to treat chronic headache or chronic pain anywhere.

So it is not unreasonable to suspect that the epidemic of low back pain in the US has in one sense been created, at least in part, by the health care system. After all, $100,000+ for a back operation provides work and profits for many people, usually excepting the victim of the pain.


Deyo writes:

"...every system is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets. If our health care system generates high costs, promotes ineffective care, and creates avoidable complications, it's because we've inadvertently designed the system to get exactly those results.

In care for back pain, we do this by performing tests when they're unlikely to help and responding to alarming but meaningless results. We do it by prescribing medications and procedures with proven risks but unproven benefits. We do it by by expecting a quick fix from a probe, a pill, or a procedure when real benefits require harder lifestyle changes. We do it with unrealistic expectations of a pain-free life. We do it by responding to financial incentives for more rather than better care. And we do it by ignoring and underfunding the treatments that appear to be most helpful.

For back pain, here are the results: steadily increasing use of imaging tests, opioids, injections, and surgery. Costs that are rising faster than the rest of medical care. And at a population level, worsening patient function and work disability. We've perfectly designed our health care system to produce these results.

It's easier to understand this situation if you remember that the back business is indeed a business. This is the story of too much medical care today. In a for-profit health care system, the first concern is the bottom line rather than the patient's welfare. And too often it follows a business ethos: caveat emptor -- buyer beware."

Full disclosure: I wrote the guideline for use of MRI in low back pain for the American Academy of Neurology in 1994. It recommends limiting MRI to patients who have had pain for over 7 weeks. By then pain has gone in almost 90% of cases. But for some of them knowing for the rest of their lives they have a degenerated, bulging, or herniated disk may not make their lives better. A herniated ("slipped") disk is not like an inguinal hernia. You don't have to repair it.

November 2, 2014

ReJoyce! Singers in the back row stopped texting.

Memorable experience last Sunday afternoon in Carnegie Hall: Alcina. A breathtaking performance of Handel's last (of dozens) opera by The English Concert conducted by Harry Bicket. (Do you remember? That's the same group who attracted an audience of ~200 in Elizabethtown when we had to paper the house a few years ago.) 

Sunday was one of the series Joyce DiDonato curated for this season in Carnegie. Joyce as Alcina and a small cast of others whose names you might not recognize (see Tony Tommasini's review) delivered some of the best singing I have ever heard. 

Alas, most human beings have the misfortune to live entire lives without hearing a Handel opera. 

Alex Ross wrote a wonderful profile of Joyce last year. 

She sang the National Anthem at the last World Series game. More Kansans were familiar with the singer from "Staind" who forgot the words (maybe his first waltz?) before game 5. 

Do Joyce and Stained represent the bipolar state of music in America?

Did I mention DiDonato's Juilliard commencement address?






October 6, 2014

Flute Flamingo and Gretna Semiotics

You have heard stories about patients in hard times paying doctors with a chicken or a head of cabbage. In my view that's a better system than the Byzantine one in the US under which we spend part of our fee to justify it to the insurance company and the insurer tries to find reasons not to pay.

In Gretna, however, we bring humor and sophistication to the exchange, not just farm produce, and cut the insurers out of the transaction. Here, for example, is payment for a comprehensive neurologic "Evaluation and Management Service," E & M 99206.xxxxx. (Don't bother with 12 pages detailing what the service entails. If any of its required parts, say "one fact each about past, family and social history," are not properly documented, the hapless doctor can go to jail.)


Flute (piccolo) Flamingo, parts contributed by other instruments

The artist is my neighbor, Max Hunsicker, a drummer and musician who has has introduced generations of school children to the joys of music and Broadway plays and shows. One of Max's many talents is fashioning a flamingo for any occasion: to advertise the annual homeowners meeting, the beginning of the school year, or to mock the "Shitauqua," a sewage pumping station that sprouted last Spring to greet drivers as they emerge in our Shangri-La out of the long tunnel of trees on route 117. 

Any resident may awaken to find a pink flamingo nailed to a tree in his yard. Ours is a pair, one playing a piano, the other a flute. When I broke my leg, a flamingo appeared on a pair of crutches. The practice has gone on for over 20 years, but the flamingos have only recently achieved three-dimensional form.

We presented another member of the musical flamingo family to Susan, another neighbor, to reward her for her fine service as our board president.








September 9, 2014

Bassoons, again

The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast,
For he heard the loud bassoon.

. . . from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner
"Coleridge didn’t know much about the bassoon . . . or he wouldn’t have said it was loud. The bassoon’s liability as an orchestral instrument is that it is quite soft, much softer in volume than its size would suggest. . . . But bassoonists the world over are grateful to Coleridge for including them in his stanza."

I have known many bassoonists. This one, the fictitious Paul Chowder in Nicholson Baker's Traveling Sprinkler, is a hoot:

"My bassoon was a Heckel bassoon, made of maplewood, stained very dark, almost black, with a nickel-plated ring on top. I loved it because it looked like a strange undersea plant, something that would live in the darkness of the Marianas Trench, near a toxic fumarole. My wonderful grandparents bought it for me, and I performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade on it, and Ravel’s Bolero, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and Vivaldi’s A minor bassoon concerto.

People often confuse the words “bassoon” and “oboe….” I think it’s because the word “oboe” sounds sort of like a sound emanating from a bassoon: oboe. But the two instruments look very different. The oboe is small and black and your eyes pop out staringly when you play it, and it’s used all the time in movie soundtracks during plaintive moments, whereas the bassoon is a brown snorkel that pokes up at an angle above the orchestra. You almost feel you could play it underwater while the violists and oboists gasp and splutter.

Hindemith, a composer, outraged me when he wrote that the bassoon, “with its clattering long levers and other obsolete features left in a somewhat fossil condition,” was due for a major overhaul. I had to admit, though, that the keys did make a lot of noise. There’s no way to play a fast passage without some extraneous clacking. Listen to Scheherazade—you’ll hear all kinds of precise metallic noises coming from the bassoonist.

I put in thousands of hours of practice, shredding my lips, permanently pushing my two front teeth apart. And then I decided I wasn’t going to be a musician, because I wasn’t that good, and my jaw was hurting badly and I had headaches from too much blowing. I was going to be a poet instead. I sold my beloved Heckel to Bill, my bassoon teacher, for ten thousand dollars. Suddenly I felt free and very rich. I quit music school and flew to Berkeley, California, and took a poetry class with Robert Hass, who was a good teacher.

Selling my bassoon was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made. I’ve regretted it a thousand times since. And here’s the strange thing. I’ve written three books of poems, and I’ve never once written a bassoon poem. I have never used the word “bassoon” in a single poem. Not once. I guess I was saving it up, which is not always a good idea.