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When we think of traumatic brain injury, we typically think of symptoms primarily related to cognition and executive function.  Hence, we expect to see memory deficits, difficulty concentrating, and difficulty regulating emotions.  We associate the brain with thinking so we often focus on the symptoms related to thinking despite the fact that traumatic brain injury can cause a host of physical symptoms as well.

One of the most troubling physical symptoms is the potential for traumatic brain injury to disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm, or its normal sleeping/waking cycle.   According to a 2012 Public Library of Science study, traumatic brain injury, “disrupts the oscillatory expression pattern of several circadian clock and clock-associated genes” in the areas of the brain primarily responsible for regulating the sleep/wake cycle (the suprachiasmic nuclie, or SCN, and hippocampus).  In short, traumatic brain injury interferes with our ability to sleep normally.  Interestingly, this sleep-impairing aspect of traumatic brain injury has effects on our cognition: 

Since the hippocampus mediates learning, memory and cognition, and diurnal regulation by the SCN is essential for proper hippocampal function, disruption of the oscillatory gene expression patterns in these two brain areas seems likely to play a role in the long-term cognitive effects of TBI.

In short, if you don’t sleep normally you don’t think normally.  This is problematic for other reasons also since sleep disruption is known to increase the likelihood of developing depression, bipolar disorder, diabetes, hypertension, and metabolic disorders. 

The wide-ranging and myriad effects of traumatic brain injury make it essential to obtain an accurate diagnosis early in the process to ensure that the best available treatment is offered.  While at least 80% of persons with mild traumatic brain injury will experience a complete recovery, there is small but nontrivial subset of patients whose symptoms will persist as chronic problems.  If we are going to administer traumatic brain injury claims effectively, it is imperative that we understand many of the effects from traumatic brain injury are not primarily cognitive in nature but rather are physical.   

To learn more about how the physical, cognitive, and psychological aspects of traumatic brain injury relate, check out Medical Systems’ 2016 Advanced Medical Topics in Civil Litigation Symposium on April 7, 2016.

There are certain medical procedures that are so common in worker’s compensation that we don’t give them a second thought.  Partial meniscectomy is among them.  Most people assume that an employee with a torn meniscus who is experiencing catching and locking in their knee should have a partial meniscectomy to treat the symptoms, regardless of whether we think the meniscus tear is work-related.  Turns out that our assumption might be wrong.

The Annals of Internal Medicine published results from a study (subscription required) which found that arthroscopic partial meniscectomy is ineffective for relieving catching and locking symptoms in the knee.  The study was conducted on a group of patients with medial knee pain who had confirmed meniscus tears without evidence of arthritis.  The participants in the study were randomly assigned to either the treatment group, which received the partial meniscectomy, or a control group, who received a sham arthroscopy.  Participants were not aware of which group they were in to control possible bias. 

The results of the study were surprising because in every reported measure, the patients undergoing the sham procedure reported fewer mechanical symptoms post-surgery.  The most impressive results were among those patients reporting that they were symptom free following the procedure.  Among this group, only 28% of the participants undergoing the actual partial meniscectomy reported being symptom-free while 41% of the participants who underwent the sham procedure reported being symptom-free.  The study’s authors were quick to note, however, that trauma-related meniscus tears causing mechanical symptoms in persons under 35 do respond well to partial meniscectomy.  On the other hand, they pointed out that “in a degenerative knee, seemingly similar symptoms may not even be caused by the meniscal tear - more likely they are a reflection of the overall deterioration of the knee and prone to increase as arthritis develops further.

In the worker’s compensation context, the dispute is typically whether a meniscus tear is traumatic or degenerative.  Regardless, the ineffectiveness and the possibility that the symptoms might be “a reflection of the overall deterioration of the knee and prone to increase as arthritis develops further” is a good reason to tread cautiously when an employee is diagnosed with a meniscus tear.  If the employee’s meniscus tear is degenerative in nature, there is a strong likelihood that a partial meniscectomy will have a temporary benefit at best and in the long run will not ameliorate or slow the progression of degenerative arthritis.  Hence, a meniscus tear in an older worker that is deemed to be work-related is highly likely to become an arthritic knee that will need to be replaced.  And despite the fact that it is bad medicine and bad science, the arthritis is likely to be blamed on the meniscus tear even though the arthritis was probably the problem in the first place.  Hence, it behooves every claims professional to take a serious look at meniscus claims and to defend them vigorously now that we know the proposed surgery may very well not work and may very well lead to additional (more costly) claims.

2/3/2016 in Blog Categories, News

A Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine article analyzed paintings of Michelangelo and concluded that the famous artist suffered from degenerative arthritis.  In related news, Michelangelo’s estate filed a claim against the Vatican in Wisconsin for TTD and PPD benefits, alleging the arthritis was due to repetitive trauma from the many painting and sculpture commissions the artist received from the Roman Catholic Church during his life.  Regarding the reason for filing in Wisconsin, lawyers for the estate said “We’re pretty sure the Wisconsin statute of limitations on this one hasn’t expired yet.”  As to whether Wisconsin is an appropriate venue, the lawyers noted “We’ll figure out a way to keep it here.  The Milwaukee Art Museum holds a Michelangelo sketch, Studies of the Medici Madonna.  We think that will be enough.”

Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,  “Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

-Sir Philip Sydney

The advent of word processing began to change the way we write.  The coordination of word processing software with internet search engines, web browsers, and websites has, in some ways, transformed writing.  The chief manner in which digital coordination has done so is through the immediate access to sources of information that can be copied and pasted or linked to in written texts.  Gone are the days (for most of us) when writing was a monastic experience typified by time spent holed up in a library or an office with sheets of paper and source material strewn across a table top or desk while a piece was constructed by actually putting pen to paper.  Owing to the difficulty of altering a piece of writing once it was started, the writer needed to have a clear idea as to what she was going to write before putting pen to paper.  A writer composing on a typewriter faced the same challenges.

Writing no longer need be a monastic experience:  any place with an electric outlet and a Wi-Fi connection with do.  In addition, writing can be more ad hoc and free-flowing because digital text is easily and endlessly emendable and source material is instantly available from anywhere.  Copy and paste is always there to add information to any piece of writing.  There are obvious benefits to the technological change that makes this type of writing possible:  writing is more accessible to more people, research is (usually) easier, and the process of writing feels less daunting as matters of both dedication and cognitive load.  However, the technological changes have detriments as well.  Much writing is less polished because it is produced so rapidly.  Much writing also seems less thoughtful and more reactive.  Interestingly, the technological changes have seen a concomitant rise in plagiarism which may be due in part to the way in which writing is composed and source materials are integrated, i.e. by copying and pasting. 

Often technological change is cast in binary terms as an either/or proposition:  either technological change is good and must be embraced in its entirety or technological change is bad and must be rejected in its entirety.  This is unfortunate because technological change is almost never a binary erasure of past forms.  Neither is life generally an either/or proposition (whatever certain Danish existentialists may say to the contrary).  Rather, technologies coexist as does our ability to use them.  One way to improve writing in the current technological milieu is to incorporate older methods of composition into the way we write.  In short, we are likely to become more careful and polished writers if we compose at least a portion of what we write using pen and paper.

Handwriting has several advantages over composing at a keyboard.  First, there is evidence that writing by hand “may trigger more sophisticated processing:  the relative slowness of handwriting seems to promote ‘mental lifting’, a process of comprehending, mulling and digesting ideas…”  Second, writing by hand is generally less distracting because the page is not part of a gadget.  It is easier to think deeply about a subject when one is not bombarded by pings and notices (or is even working on a device that is tantalizingly close to all them).  Third, there is anecdotal evidence that students who wrote responses to questions by hand “produced better writing than those who typed them.” 

It must be said that no reasonable person would advocate drafting all communication by hand.  This would be stultifying, inefficient, and foolish.  Nevertheless, if handwriting can be integrated into some forms of written communications, the benefits to the overall quality of one’s writings will outweigh any minor efficiency costs.  Also, to the extent that writing a portion of one’s communications by hand improves the quality and clarity of one’s communication in general, handwriting can actually serve to make one more efficient in the aggregate.

To take advantage of handwriting’s benefits, one should look to communications that by their nature require more time, thought, and coherent organization.  A cover letter is a good example.  It is easy to copy and paste from records and prior correspondence to cobble a cover letter together quickly; however, the end result will often be disjointed, inconsistent, and confusing.  Composing the first draft by hand will force the writer to organize the letter thoughtfully and to stay consistent in the presentation of the relevant facts and in the questions to be answered.  Not every cover letter will lend itself to being written by hand, but some do and taking the time to create the first draft by hand will help produce a better cover letter and will help the writer to become a more effective communicator.  And more effective communications get the best results.

Pain is a problem that is frequently treated with painkillers.  As we are all aware, this has led to a significant problem with addiction to and overdose from opioid painkillers in this country.  The reasons for the crisis in prescription opioid addiction and overdose are myriad and have been discussed extensively here and elsewhere.  This post is not about the problem, but instead about an opportunity to address it.

The NY Times recently posted an article about the potential to harness the placebo effect to help treat pain which offers an intriguing possibility in the struggle to treat pain without causing addiction and overdose.  As Jo Marchant reports, “even when we take a real painkiller, a big chunk of the effect is delivered not by any direct chemical action, but by our expectation that that drug will work.  Studies show that widely used painkillers like morphine, buprenorphine and tramadol are markedly less effective if we don’t know we’re taking them.”  In fact, placebo effects are so powerful “that drug manufacturers are finding it hard to beat them.”  Hence, Marchant suggests that more research should be done to figure out if “prescription” placebos could be used to treat pain.

Marchant recognizes the difficulty with placebos:  namely that the effect is generally observed in clinical trials where individuals don’t know if they are getting the active drug or a placebo.  In controlled studies, patients expect they will receive a drug that will improve their condition even though they know they might in fact get a placebo.  This, as Marchant notes, appears to be a key component of the placebo effect:  “[t]he greater our belief that a treatment will work, the better we’ll respond.”  There have, however, been studies in which patients knowingly taking placebos still reported statistically significant improvement in their reported level of pain.  This leads Marchant to ask the eminently reasonable question, “[w]ith placebo responses in pain so high – and the risks of drugs so severe – why not prescribe a course of ‘honest’ placebos for those who wish to try it, before proceeding, if necessary, to an active drug?”

Pain is ubiquitous in our society and, when chronic, often proves disabling.  We know from experience that prescribing opioid painkillers is not the answer to the problem of pain.  Perhaps it is time for those of us in the medico-legal world to use whatever muscle we have and advocate for change.  A good place to start would be the use of “honest” placebos to treat pain.

Worker’s compensation claims involving chronic pain are typically difficult and expensive to administer.  We know that simply putting a person on prescription painkillers doesn’t work, yet that is often the treatment claimants end up on.  In these cases, the end result is usually an employee who doesn’t return to work and ends up filing a long term disability or SSDI claim.  Either way, the result is not good for the employee, the employer, or the worker’s compensation insurance carrier.

Fortunately, the medical research community is tackling the issue head-on.  As a result, the medical community is making some exciting strides in understanding how chronic pain works and, accordingly, what treatments are likely to be the most effective.  Researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine reported on one such stride.   In an animal study, researchers discovered that chronic pain looks a lot like addiction in the brain.  As one author put it, “chronic pain actually rewires the part of the brain controlling whether you feel happy or sad.”  In other words, "The study shows you can think of chronic pain as the brain getting addicted to pain," said another author. "The brain circuit that has to do with addiction has gotten involved in the pain process itself."

With this knowledge, the study combined a Parkinson’s drug and an NSAID that target the brain area chronic pain affects.  Remarkably, the combined drugs “completely eliminate chronic pain behavior when administered to rodents with chronic pain.”  Yes, you read that right:  the drugs completely eliminate chronic pain in rodents.  Unfortunately, the study involved rodents.  Still, the authors are optimist that the effect will translate to humans and have already begun designing human trials.

This development bears following.  As those of us in the worker’s compensation world know, chronic pain is debilitating and expensive.  Also, it often devolves into chronic use of opioid pain medication that has deleterious psycho-social effects and almost guarantees injured workers will develop a disability mindset.  Any new treatment that can stop the downward spiral often associated with chronic pain claims would be a remarkable development.

Most of us have New Year’s resolutions and most of us follow them for a couple of weeks or even a month.  Many of the abandoned resolutions focus on improving our health.  Usually the reason we abandon the resolutions is that they require us to change our daily routines and habits too much.  This is unfortunate because if we, as a nation, improved our health even modestly the results would be enormous.   For example, the CDC reports that “the estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion in 2008 U.S. dollars.”  Reducing the obesity rate by 25% would produce a $37 billion savings.  This is not small change. 

Employers would benefit greatly if Americans became healthier.  After all, employers provide the lion’s share of health insurance benefits and bear the brunt of our unhealthy habits in the form of workplace absence, reduced productivity, and disability-related costs.  But what can employers do if most of us can’t keep the promises we make to ourselves to become healthier?

According to a new study, employers probably can do more than they think.   Medical News Today reported on a recent study presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions 2015 which found that just three minutes of light exercise every 30 minutes has significant blood pressure-lowering effects in overweight and obese persons with Type 2 diabetes.   Bronwyn Kingwell, PhD, one of the study’s coauthors noted that "It appears you don't have to do very much. We saw some marked blood pressure reductions over trial days when people did the equivalent of walking to the water cooler or some simple body-weight movements on the spot."  This is where employers can make a difference:  develop policies that encourage employees to get up and move.  As Kingwell notes, even movements done at a person’s workstation have blood-pressure-lowering effects.  And the effects of lowering blood pressure are profound both in direct medical costs and indirect employment costs.  So dump the resolutions and get your employees to move.  Even 3 minutes helps.

Geography determines many things.  It should not, however, determine how likely you are to survive cardiac arrest.  Unfortunately, geography does just that.  According to a New York Times article, persons suffering out-of-hospital cardiac arrest treated by emergency medical service (“EMS”) providers in Seattle have a 19.9% survival rate while persons in Detroit have only a 3% survival rate.  It appears that the wide variation in survival rates is due primarily to the quality of the training EMS providers receive and to “spreading awareness that cardiac arrest is a treatable condition, so citizens are quick to perform bystander CPR.” 

Survival rates vary widely even for hospitalized patients treated for cardiac arrest.  For example, CPR should be attempted for a minimum of 45 minutes but is usually only performed for 15-20 minutes in clinical settings.  In addition, clinicians often fail to use more powerful interventions available to them such as extra corporeal membrane oxygenation, in which a patient’s blood is artificially oxygenated.  According to one expert interviewed for the article, extra corporeal membrane oxygenation is more common in Japan and South Korea where “they routinely bring people back to life who would remain dead here.”  Unfortunately, even in hospitals “it’s a lottery of what you will get” that largely “depend[s] on which doctor happens to receive you, since none of these treatments are regulated.” 

It is tragic that 17 out of every hundred people who could survive out-of-hospital cardiac arrest will not simply because they live in Detroit.  While cardiac arrest is not a medico-legal issue of the sort we normally address here, it is a human issue.  And at this time of year, many of us ask ourselves what we can do to help our fellow human beings.  Taking a CPR course that teaches up-to-date techniques is one place to start. Another place is to spread awareness that out-of-hospital cardiac arrest is treatable with immediate bystander CPR.  As the article notes, “if Seattle’s innovations could be implemented nationwide for out-of-hospital cardiac arrests…as many as 30,000 lives annually could be saved.”  That is a gift worth giving.

Mild traumatic brain injury claims may well be the most vexing for claims professionals.  They usually involve comparatively minor incidents for which little objective testing exists and they are frequently entangled with psychological co-morbidities which further complicate matters.  In addition, the chief method to diagnose and assess mild traumatic brain injury involves subjective reports and evaluations of cognitive symptoms and functioning, making these claims particularly susceptible to exaggeration, malingering, and fraud. 

The mild traumatic brain injury paradox is that those who are often at greatest risk of reinjury are often the most eager to return to the risky activity while those with the lowest risk of reinjury are most concerned about returning even to the activities of everyday life.  Hence, the competitive athlete will mask symptoms in an effort to return to the playing field as quickly as possible while the truck driver who pulled an overhead trailer door onto his head may complain of cognitive symptoms for weeks or even months to avoid returning to work.  The subjective nature of diagnosis and assessment makes it difficult for medical professionals to know when the athlete is not ready to return to competitive play and simultaneously when the truck driver is ready to return to work.

Unfortunately, recent research muddies the water and makes the development of an objective test for traumatic brain injury all the more important.  In a study presented to the American Radiological Society, researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin found that persons suffering from mild traumatic brain injuries demonstrated neuropathology on MRI scans days after their cognitive functioning returned to baseline.  This is a potential problem because it is generally accepted that injured neurons subjected to a second trauma before they are healed are at risk of significant and permanent injury; further, the traditional mechanism for assessing when a mild traumatic brain injury has resolved is a subjective assessment that the injured person’s cognitive functioning has returned to baseline. 

And as noted above, those who are most eager to return to the activity that caused the mild traumatic brain injury are often the most susceptible to suffering another head injury.  If they return before they are fully healed from the first injury, the second injury could have devastating effects.  This further exemplifies why it is so critical to develop a reliable and rapid objective test to assess the presence of mild traumatic brain injury.  As an added bonus, a reliable and rapid objective test would have the felicitous effect of being able to catch those trying to use a mild traumatic brain injury to stay out of work or to collect a financial windfall in a personal injury action.

11/24/2015 in Blog Categories, News

Sometimes the old adage rings true and you do get what you pay for.  Other times, it does not.  According to the American College of Physicians, the adage does not ring true for prescription medications.  Medical News Today reports on a recent meta-analysis from the American College of Physicians Clinical Guidelines Committee which concluded that “the majority of peer-reviewed studies found that generic equivalents to brand-name drugs produced similar clinical outcomes.”  In addition, the report’s authors found that patients adhered to their prescriptions better when receiving generics because of their lower costs, noting that “prescriptions for branded medications are almost twice as likely to go uncollected after being filled than generic medications.”  Further, the cost of choosing branded medications over generics is significant.  Substituting generic prescription drugs for brand name ones “combined with therapeutic interchange” would save $1.4 billion just among Medicare beneficiaries with diabetes.

Health insurers and employers bear a huge amount of the unnecessary direct costs of prescribing brand name drugs instead of generic equivalents.  They also bear many of the indirect costs when an insured/employee doesn’t fill a brand name prescription due to lost time and increased medical intervention costs when the condition for with the brand name prescription was written is not controlled.  Thus, health insurers and employers should staunchly advocate that physicians receiving reimbursement from group health or worker’s compensation plans prescribe the lowest cost drug or therapeutic equivalence rather than a brand name drug that adds no therapeutic value.  They should also aggressively educate employees so they understand that with many prescription drugs you do not, in fact, get what you pay for.

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