The Andromeda Cramp

What is this, you ask? A sequel to Michael Crichton’s blockbuster sci-fi thriller, The Andromeda Strain?

Hardly. That little dickens was a rogue airborne microbe from outer space that crystallized blood and paralyzed the nervous system within seconds of exposure. Nasty, eh? Yet it mutated into a harmless state by the end of the story, sparing scientists from having to find an antidote before it drifted offshore, the rains then carrying it into the sea where it was alkalized into eternal slumber.

How convenient. That was a cakewalk compared to, say, finding a cure for Multiple Sclerosis. Strain? Let me tell you something about strain, Michael Crichton, and I’m not talkin' your garden variety Charlie horse or the famous Archie Bunker toe cramp, I’m talkin' the mother of all muscle spasms:

The Andromeda Cramp

Readers, you know what I mean. Each of you has your own unique version. Here are a few minor classics from the spasticity catalog:

The Japanese Inquisition: That combination of feeling stretched on the rack and having two Sumo wrestlers sitting on your arms.

Beastie from Below: The sensation of being squeezed around the chest by a nuclear waste-munching mutant python.

Epic Mood Killer: It’s when you become sexually aroused (for the first time in six months) and a muscle spasm starts in your lower back, then simultaneously travels all the way down one leg and all the way up one arm, through your neck and into your head, causing you to painfully arch your back and point your toes in a full body spasm. Writhing in pain, you then watch helplessly while your lover weeps, blows out the vanilla candles, and turns on “The Colbert Report.”

Flamingo: When you get out of bed in the morning and all the muscles in one leg contract, causing you to draw it up and stand on the other leg.

Like Frankenchicken: How you walk to the bathroom after recovering from the Flamingo.

All these and more, despite taking muscle relaxers. Step right up folks, we have baclofen, soma, flexeril, Valium, zanaflex, botox injections. And don’t forget Vesicare for bladder spasticity.

How I manage my spasticity

Personally, I take baclofen for my spastic legs, 30 mg twice a day. That dosage doesn’t relieve all the spasticity, I should take 90 mg for complete relief. But I want that happy medium between stiff and loose so I can be strong enough to stay on my feet. Unfortunately, that leaves me open to cramping, so I do very gentle yoga stretches to lengthen and loosen those calf and thigh muscles a smidge. But the stretches can sometimes cause rebound stiffness and pain, so I fire up my heating pad afterwards and lay it across my legs for an hour, and it works, the pain and stiffness disappear. I’ve got this balancing act down so well I’m thinking of auditioning for that wire acrobat opening at Cirque du soleil. (What, too soon?)

I have considered the intrathecal baclofen pump and decided against it, but I'll save that for another essay. So on to one of my favorite alternatives.

Libations for relaxation

Alcohol is a great muscle relaxer, too. Here’s where I am supposed to say that you should consult your doctor before drinking alcohol to make sure it’s safe to consume while taking your muscle relaxer. So there, I said it. Now back to the fun stuff.

One night while out having dinner, I decided to have a scotch. Okay, two scotches. When I grabbed my cane and headed to the restroom, I noticed that I could walk much more easily than when I’d first arrived. My balance was better and my leg muscles felt looser. Of course, I was slightly inebriated, so I felt pleasantly detached from my body and from all my sober worries about losing my footing. Why, I thought, I’m certain that if a cop asked me to walk a straight line right now, I could do it—and that, my friends, is something I cannot do when I’m sober. So I set out to prove it. Out in the parking lot, I asked my designated driver boyfriend to watch while I tried to walk heel-to-toe along the yellow line of the parking space. I did it without one misstep. I did! I have a witness.

My neuro's reaction to this realization

My neuro just beamed at me when I told her this story. In fact, she still giggles whenever I come in for an office visit. Either she approves or she thinks I’m pathetic, I’m not really sure. But she never told me I shouldn’t drink and take baclofen. She knows I do my research and that I don’t abuse my medications or alcohol. Baclofen is a high-alert drug since some people have a tendency to seek it out for its mood-altering potential. It doesn't have that effect for me, I'm sad to say. It merely relaxes my muscles.

Conventional thinking dictates that we with chronic diseases are not excused from feeling our lives in the same way everyone else does. Life hurts, and we all must feel pain so we can appreciate the absence of it. But it isn't quite that simple, is it? The Andromeda Cramp isn't limited to our muscle spasms, it can be a state of mind, the smoking gun evidence of a shredded nervous system.

Pain doesn't build character

For most humans most of the time, pain--physical or otherwise--doesn't build character. And whoever said God never gives us more than we can handle has forgotten about all the suicides, murder-suicides, and people who have checked out and sit drooling in a corner of a psych ward. They got more than they could handle, a lot more.

Whether we MSers enjoy a glass of wine in the evenings or a soothing cup of tea and a warm bath, none of us wants to let MS cramp our style. Spazzing out just makes this disease feel even worse. We try to stay calm, relaxed, detached, inert, until scientists can find a way to send MS out to sea and dispatch it with a rain cloud.

I don't always drink alcohol when I feel the Andromeda Cramp, but when I do, I drink Dewar's.

Stay loose, my friends.

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