Did you know severe asthma is way more than only severe asthma??

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How did I end up with 6 other conditions plus just from one medication I take for severe asthma. The scary thing is I am not alone.

This word cloud represents all the conditions a small selection of people have as a result of severe asthma. I asked a support group on social media as I am becoming more and more aware of my growing list of conditions. I started off with only asthma and now have: GERD, Osteoporosis, Adrenal Insufficiency, Steroid induced Diabetes, Optic Nerve Neuritis with peripheral vision loss, chronic pain due to lung adherence to chest wall, depression, anaphylaxis, steroid induced myopathy, and this is just what has been diagnosed there are a host of other side effects as well which are a collection of symptoms rather than conditions.

I know my asthma is on the severe end of the spectrum and this type of asthma is very rare but it is shocking that for 33 I have all these conditions all as a result of having asthma and the medication required to control it.

I asked a group of 30 different people of varying ages and almost all of them had at least 4 other conditions that they did not have before they ended up with severe asthma.

I think this just highlights the chronic misunderstanding asthma has. We rely on medications that ravage our bodies to help our lungs. If we did not take these medications many of us would be dead however with the medication we are facing life shortening conditions.

How do we change this? How can we prevent severe asthma causing all these other conditions. You see advances being made in other chronic conditions where new medications are coming out that are life changing and do not come with side effects that just multiply not only your condition list but also your medication regime.

It is a side of asthma that no one ever knows or sees. I am sure the list of conditions I gathered is not all of them and if I asked a wider group of people there would be even more conditions in the word cloud.

Hopefully by sharing this and highlighting this insight it will educate even just one person as to how much severe asthma can destroy a life.

Severe asthma does not end up as only asthma there is a whole lot more that goes along with it too.

Oral Steroids and Bone Health

Oral steroids like prednisolone come with a vast array of side effects. Some of these side effects can be very visible such as weight gain, or thinning skin but these are not the side effects to be worried about. It is the silent side effects that we don’t see that need to most attention and care. As well as steroid induced diabetes and high blood sugar levels one of the other potentially catastrophic side effects from prednisolone and other oral steroids is bone thinning and osteoporosis.

Over the many years of taking oral prednisolone I have gone from someone who really did not think about the side effects to being hit full force in the face.

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I have been prescribed bone protection for years. Calci-chew D3 Forte twice a day and then alendrotnic acid once a week. I have to be honest and until maybe 5 years ago I was not the most compliant at taking my bone protection. The calci-chew never bothered me and it was easy to take but it was the alendronate I used to always forget. I think it is because you only take it once a week and when you take it you must take it with a full glass of water, be sitting up and not take any other medication with it. Part of my morning routine I do on auto pilot which included taking my medication. I would just take it, and do my teeth etc without thinking. Often by the time I realised I was meant to take my alendronate I would be half way through my breakfast. I was not missing it on purpose but after several experiences of taking it after eating I was not going to do it again in a hurry.

A good consultant will make sure you get a DEXA scan regularly especially if you are on long term oral steroids. I had not had one at all until maybe 5 years ago when I was sent for one to check my bone health. The results were shocking. I had early stage osteoporosis with significant bone density loss. I was at this point not even 30 and had the bones of an old lady. I also knew at this point that my asthma was not likely to get much better and I would be on oral steroids for a good portion of my life so I needed to wake up and make an extra effort to take my alendronate. Which I did.

The one slightly daunting part of the whole thing was filling in the pre DEXA scan questionnaire particularly the bit about you diet where it asks how much milk you drink and how much daily you have. I had to count up the average amount of milk over a week and I was pretty shocked!!! But I guess when it comes to bone health the more calcium the better!!

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Now it is the anxious wait for the results to be processed and sent back to my consultant. No matter what the result is there is not much more I could have done. Since finding out I had the early stages of osteoporosis I have been religious in taking my bone protection medication which is all I can ask for.

I do wonder that is the reason I have osteoporosis now because I was started on bone protection late but also because once started I never really took it as thought I didnt need it as I was young and my bones would be ok. I can’t dwell on it now because it has happened and I cant change things. I can only now stop things from getting worse rather than hoping to cure my bones.

If anyone reading this is on oral steroids and not taking calcium supplements from your GP, Asthma Nurse or Asthma consultant then please ask for them. Steroids can have an awful effect on your bones. One friend is now wheelchair bound due to the adverse effects of steroids on her bones.

Never underestimate the power of the humble oral steroid. They do some wonderful things and as a result mean many are alive but they do have some side effects which can be equally as devastating as not taking the drug themselves in the first place.

Chronic Pain with Chronic Illness

I get my medication each week in a dosette box made up by my local pharmacist. I take so many medications that when I am not well I find it hard to work out what I have taken and what I still need to take. I now don’t need to think about what I take, I just pop them out the relevant space and swallow them down in one.

Today I noticed something though. There were 5 unopened pods from this last week. The 5 unopened pods were all my lunchtime doses of pain killers. I had not been aware of deliberately not taking them but because I was not aware of not taking them then that means I was not in pain and needing them.

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Chronic pain is one part of my health that I shunned for so long. I had always had this perception that I was weak because I was in pain and also was very aware that the Dr’s may think I was just attention seeking or drug seeking. I think I thought this because of the number of times I have seen and heard the conversations had when people come in to hospital with abdominal pain with no real cause and the suggestion of it being psychological or drug seeking.

For many years I lived with pain in my chest specifically the left side of my chest/lung. Part of me didnt want to acknowledge it and if I didnt then I would be ok but then it was harder and harder to function due to the pain I was experiencing. It was one hospital admission when I was in ICU and due to staffing I was being looked after by an ICU advanced nurse practitioner. I think her experience of being a nurse and seeing patients in pain she could tell what was real pain. I had not been asking for pain killers but she could see me wincing and struggling. It was only after she spoke to me about it that I finally admitted to the pain and feeling I had when I took a breath in, the pain was not nearly as bad when exhaling but felt like something rubbing and stabbing when I inhaled. It was from then I spoke up about it and we looked into what was causing the pain. From then I have reluctantly taken painkillers regularly.

Further investigation was done into the area of my chest where I had the worst pain. X-rays showed I had previously fractured some of the ribs- most likely occurring due to coughing and my slightly weaker bones but it didnt show anything major that would explain the sharp, rubbing pain I would get when breathing in but didnt hurt if you pressed on it. I had a CT scan which revealed why I was so sore. A lot of scarring in that part of my lung but also the pleura didnt look normal and the Dr thinks this is what is causing the pain and rubbing feeling. I have never really had a bad bout of pleurisy but the Dr said the way I was describing it the pain made them think it was pleuritic even though I didnt have the infection etc to go with it. I was told that the cause has most likely been due to the infection, trauma and recurrent asthma attacks over the years that have never really had much time to recover before the next thing hit.

Managing pain with a lung condition has really been a big struggle. Certain drugs are out of the question- non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are a total no no and I learnt the hard way when I decided to try ibuprofen gel on my skin but had a full allergic reaction to it (I thought it was just if I took the pills). The aim with pain control is to eliminate pain and allow everyday function which is what I tried to achieve but have never been able to do. To get optimal pain control meant side effects which often meant feeling dopey. I got onto a regime using co-codamol and nefopam which helped although during the week I would use a lower dose of co-codamol due to it making me feel like my head was in the clouds but this meant by the end of the day I was in so much pain. It would feel like the outside of my lung was on fire- no matter how gentle you were you when you took a breath in the pain was the same. To control this part I had oral morphine that I could take at night before doing nebulisers and physio. I went with this regime for a few years until I saw a Dr who decided I should be switched to prolonged release morphine rather than the nefopam, co-codamol and oromorph mix. I was reluctant about this as had a handle on what I was doing and although the pain was never gone it was far more bearable.

The Dr who thought outside the box was a consultant who I had not seen before but was a respiratory consultant. He asked me about the pain and what it felt like, and also what was important to me about everyday function and that if I could I didnt want to be taking painkillers you can get addicted to! I was only 30 at the time and was already taking more painkillers than I liked and it was a worry for the future if I did something that needed pain relief I had this image that they would think I was a junkie because would need a higher dose of painkiller than I should. The Dr said his main concern was getting the pain under control for me to function and be relatively pain free but I should not be on prolonged release morphine etc due to it suppressing your respiratory effort which I can afford to do. I was so happy to know I wouldn’t be taking the MST anymore but a little worried about what I was going to be taking as could not go back to the pain I once had.

The Dr suggested lidocaine patches to wear topically on my chest where it hurts to see if this helped the main as he felt there is most likely nerve involvement and the whole area is constantly irritated which is why it is always sore. He did joke that you cant rest your lungs like you can a sore leg to let it get better!!

So a new regime of painkillers started which was the lidocaine patch, co-codamol 4 times a day and then the oromorph for when my chest is really bad (they also use it for breathlessness to). Since starting on this regime I have been stunned at how the patch has worked. It doesn’t take the pain away totally and the Dr said this is good as it means it will let you know when to stop!!!

Most recently since moving to my new consultant and being kept on the higher dose of prednisolone the pain in my chest has been no where near as bad. Instead of going through 2 bottles of oromorph a month I don’t even use a whole one and as I noticed last week I have not been needing my lunchtime dose of painkiller either. I am so happy about this. I have always had at the back of my mind I want to get off all painkillers so having a week of less pain and not needing the painkillers is great. When I see my consultant next I am going to ask if we can maybe just drop down on the dose of painkiller with a view to stopping them and just having the patch and maybe the oromorph for emergencies!

The lidocaine patch has been life changing- I do not understand how it works really but it works so I don’t care. I try not to wear them at the weekend to have a break and just keep them for work and weekends when I have lacrosse or something.

With each day that goes by just now I am in no doubt that I made the right decision to move consultant. If I didnt I am pretty sure I would have been in hospital by now. Staying on 20mg of prednisolone has got me through a chest infection without needing to increase the dose just a few extra nebulisers and antibiotics. Obviously 20mg of prednisolone long term is not good but I am hoping that as the mepolizumab starts working I will notice the difference and we can reduce the prednisolone!!