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When A Comorbidity Isn’t “Comorbid” At All

July 7, 2011

When medical professionals speak of the burden of illness, we use the term “morbidity.”  This can refer either to the impact of an illness on a patient’s quality of life, or to the overall impact of a disease on a defined community.  We also speak of “co-morbidities,” which, as you might expect, are two concurrent conditions, both of which must be treated in order for a patient to experience optimal health.

Comorbidities can be entirely unrelated, as in the case of a tooth abscess and fecal incontinence (at least I hope those are unrelated!).  Alternatively, they can be intimately connected, like CHF and coronary artery disease.  They may also represent seemingly discrete phenomena which, upon closer inspection, might be related after all—at least in some patients—like schizophrenia and obesity, depression and HIV, or chronic fatigue syndrome and XMRV (oops, scratch that last one!).  The idea is that it’s most parsimonious to find the connections between and among these comorbidities (when they exist) and treat both disorders simultaneously in order to achieve the best outcomes for patients.

I was recently asked to write an article on the comorbidity of alcoholism and anxiety disorders, and how best to manage these conditions when they co-occur.  Being the good (and modest—ha!) researcher that I am, I scoured the literature and textbooks for clinical trials, and found several studies of treatment interventions for combined anxiety and alcoholism.  Some addressed the disorders sequentially, some in parallel, some in an integrated fashion.  I looked at drug trials and therapy trials, in a variety of settings and for various lengths of time.

I quickly found that there’s no “magic bullet” to treat anxiety and alcoholism.  No big surprise.  But when I started to think about how these conditions appear in the real world (in other words, not in a clinical trial), I began to understand why.

You see, there’s great overlap among most psychiatric diagnoses—think of “anxious depression” or “bipolar with psychotic features.”  As a result, psychiatrists in practice more often treat symptoms than diseases.  And nowhere is this more the case than in the diagnosis and treatment of addictions.

Addictions are incredibly complex phenomena.  While we like to think of addictions like alcoholism as “diseases,” I’m starting to think they really are not.  Instead, an addiction like alcoholism is a manifestation or an epiphenomenon of some underlying disorder, some underlying pain or deficiency, or some sense of helplessness or powerlessness (for a more elaborate description, see Lance Dodes’ book The Heart of Addiction).  In other words, people drink not because of a dopamine receptor mutation, or a deficiency in some “reward chemical,” or some “sensation-seeking” genotype, but because of anxiety, depression, or other painful emotional states.  They could just as easily be “addicted” to gambling, running, bike riding, cooking (and yes, sex) as ways of coping with these emotions.  Incidentally, what’s “problematic” differs from person to person and from substance to substance.  (And it is notable, for instance, that mainlining heroin = “bad” and running marathons = “good.”  Who made that rule?)

“But wait,” you might say, “there’s your comorbidity right there… you said that people drink because they’re anxious.”  Okay, so what is that “anxiety”?  Panic disorder?  Post-traumatic stress disorder?  Social phobia?  Yes, there are certainly some alcoholics with those “pre-existing conditions” who use alcohol as a way of coping with them, but they are a small minority.  (And even within that minority, I’m sure there are those whose drinking has been a remarkably helpful coping mechanism, despite the fact that it would be far more supportive of our treatment paradigm if they just took a pill that we prescribed to them.)

For the great majority of people, however, the use of alcohol (or another addictive behavior) is a way to deal with a vastly more complicated set of anxieties, deficiencies, and an inability to deal with the here and now in a more direct way.  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, it can be quite adaptive.

Unfortunately, when we psychiatrists hear that word “anxiety,” we immediately think of the anxiety disorders as written in the DSM-IV and think that all anxious alcoholics have a clear “dual diagnosis” which—if we diagnose correctly—can be treated according to some formula.  Instead, we ought to think about anxiety in a more diffuse and idiosyncratic way:  i.e., the cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and existential phenomena that uniquely affect each of our patients.  (I’m tempted to venture into psychodynamic territory and describe the tensions between unconscious drives and the patient’s ego, but I’m afraid that might be too quaint for the sensibilities of the 21st century mind.)

Thus, I predict that the rigorous, controlled (and expensive, and time-consuming) studies of medications and other interventions for “comorbid” anxiety disorders and alcoholism are doomed to fail.  This is because alcoholism and anxiety are not comorbid in the sense that black and white combine to form the stripes of a zebra.  Rather, they make various shades of grey.  Some greys are painful and everlasting, while others are easier to erase.  By simplifying them as black+white and treating them accordingly, we miss the point that people are what matter, and that the “grey areas” are key to understanding each patient’s anxieties, insecurities, and motivations—in other words, to figuring out how each patient is unique.

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Obesity-Related Anxiety: A Me-Too Disease?

April 15, 2011

Psychiatry seems to have a strange fascination with labels.  (I would say it has an obsession with labels, but then it would be labeled OCD.)  We’re so concerned with what we call something that we sometimes ignore the real phenomena staring us in the face every day.

Consider social anxiety disorder (SAD).  Some have argued that this is simply a technical, high-falutin’ label for general shyness, which even “normal” people experience in varying degrees.  There are indeed cases in which someone’s shyness can be horribly incapacitating—and these cases usually benefit from specialized treatment—but there also exists a broad gradient of social anxiety that we all experience.  If I spend too much time worrying about whether the shy patient in my office meets specific criteria for SAD, I might lose sight of why he came to my office in the first place.

So a news story this week caught my eye, with the headline “Obese People Can Suffer From Social Anxiety Due to Weight Alone.”  To a non-psychiatrist, this statement probably seems self-evident: people who are overweight or obese (just like people with any other aspect of their physical appearance that makes them appear “different from normal”) might be anxious or uncomfortable in social settings, simply because of their weight.

This discomfort doesn’t meet criteria for a DSM-IV diagnosis, though.  (At this point, you might ask, but who cares?  Good question—I’ll get to that below.)  The DSM-IV specifies that the symptoms of social anxiety must be unrelated to any medical condition (of which obesity could be considered one).  So if you’re overly self-conscious in social situations due to your weight, or due to an unsightly mole on your face, or due to a psoriasis flare-up, or because you’re a dwarf, sorry, you don’t “qualify” as SAD.

Apparently some researchers want to change this.  In a study to be published this month in the journal Depression and Anxiety, researchers at Brown University and Rhode Island Hospital investigated a large number of obese individuals and found that some of them have social anxiety due to their weight and nothing else, resulting in “greater impairment in social life and greater distress about their social anxiety” than those obese patients who had been diagnosed with (non-obesity-related) SAD earlier in life.  They argue that we should expand the diagnostic criteria in the upcoming DSM-5 to include these folks.  (Indeed, the subtitle of the article in question is “Implications for a Proposed Change in DSM-5.”)

An investigation of their methods, though, reveals that their key finding may have been a foregone conclusion from the start.  Here’s what they did: They interviewed 1,800 people who were being evaluated for weight loss surgery.  (A pre-op comprehensive psychiatric evaluation is often a requirement for bariatric surgery.)  616 people had no psychiatric history whatsoever, while 135 of them had been diagnosed with SAD at some point in their lives.  But then they found 40 additional people whom they labeled as having something they called “modified SAD,” or “clinically significant social anxiety … only related to weight concerns.”  The paper demonstrates that this “modified SAD” group had psychosocial characteristics (like work/social impairment, past/current social functioning, etc) which were strikingly similar to patients with SAD.

But wait a minute… they admit they “labeled” a subset of patients with something that resembled SAD.  So in other words, they pre-selected people with SAD-like symptoms, and then did the analysis to show that, sure enough, they looked like they have SAD!  It’s sort of like taking all the green M&Ms out of a bowl and then performing a series of chemical and physical tests to prove that they are green.  OK, maybe I shouldn’t have used a food analogy, but you get my point…

I don’t mean to be weigh too heavily (no pun intended) on study’s authors (for one thing, the lead author shared a draft of the article with me prior to publication).  I know why articles like this are written; I’m aware that the medical exclusion has made it impossible for us to diagnose SAD in many people who actually have debilitating anxiety due to some obvious cause, like obesity or stuttering.  And this is relevant because we have to give a DSM code in order to be paid for the services we provide.  As with much in life, it’s often all about the money.

But if that’s the only reason we’re squabbling over whether obesity-related anxiety deserves the DSM seal of approval, then I’m sorry, but it’s another example of psychiatrists and psychologists missing the point.  Whether we call something SAD—or depression, or panic disorder, or ADHD, or bipolar disorder, or whatever—means less to the patient than what he or she actually experiences.  Admittedly, we do have to give a “diagnosis” at some point, but we need to ensure our diagnoses don’t become so homogenized that we end up looking at all of our patients through the same lens.

The 40 obese Rhode Islanders who are socially distressed due to their weight probably don’t care whether they’re labeled “SAD,” “modified SAD,” or anythingelse, they just want help.  They want to feel better, and we owe it to them to get our heads out of our DSMs and back into the therapeutic setting where they belong.


The Power Of No

April 3, 2011

Why is it that when someone tells us we can’t have something, we just want it more?  Marketers (those masters of neuropsychology) use this to their great advantage.  “Call now!  Offer expires in ten minutes!”  “Only one more available at this price!”  “Limited edition—Act now!”  Talk about incentive salience!!!

This phenomenon is known as the Scarcity Effect—a psychological principle saying that individuals don’t want to be left alone without an item—particularly something they believe they cannot have.  We’ve all experienced this in our personal lives.  Tight budgets often invite wasteful expenditures.  Obsession over “forbidden foods” has ruined many a diet.  Saying “no” to a child is frequently a trigger for constant begs and pleas.

Given the apparent universality of this concept, it’s surprising that we fall victim to it in medicine as often as we do, particularly at times when we want to motivate behavior change.  Saying “no” to a patient usually doesn’t work—it’s human nature.  In fact, if anything, the outcome is usually the opposite.  Reciting the dangers of cigarette smoking or obesity, for example, or admonishing a patient for these behaviors, rarely eliminates them.  The patient instead experiences shame or guilt that, paradoxically, strengthens his resistance to change.

But if we understand the Scarcity Effect, we doctors can outsmart it and use it to our advantage.  This can be important when we prescribe medications which are likely to be misused or abused, like sleep medications or benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, and others).  These drugs are remarkably effective for management of insomnia and anxiety, but their overuse has led to great morbidity, mortality, and increased health costs.  Similarly, narcotic pain medications are also effective but may be used excessively, with unfortunate results.  We discourage excessive use of these drugs because of side effects, the development of physical dependence, and something I call “psychological dependence”: the self-defeating belief I see in many patients that taking a pill is absolutely necessary to do what the patient should be able to do by him- or herself.

If I give a patient a prescription and say something like “Here’s a script for 15 pills, but I’m not giving you a refill until next month,” I’m almost inviting failure.  Just as expected by the Scarcity Effect, the patient’s first thought is usually “but what if I need 16?”

(I’ve worked extensively in addiction medicine, and the same principle is at work here, too.  When an alcoholic in early recovery is told that he can never have a drink again, he immediately starts to crave one.  Now I know that most alcoholics in early recovery are not in the position to say “no” to a drink, but this is the ultimate goal.  Their ability and willingness to say “no” is far more effective for long-term sobriety than someone else saying “no” for them.)

So why exactly does inaccessibility lead to craving?  Because even when it’s clear that we cannot have something, our repeated efforts to get it sometimes pay off.  And here’s where another psychological principle—that of intermittent reinforcement—comes in to play.  People who play the lottery are victims of this.  They know (most of them!!) that the odds of their winning are vanishingly low.  Most people never win, and those who play regularly are almost always losers.  However, every once in a while they’ll get lucky and win a $5 scratcher (and see the news stories about the $80 million jackpot winner just like them!) and this is incredibly reinforcing.

Similarly, if a doctor tells a patient that she should use only 10 Ambien tablets in 30 days– and that no refills will be allowed– but she calls the doctor on day #12 and asks for a refill anyway, getting the refill is incredibly reinforcing.  In the drug and alcohol treatment center where I used to work, if someone’s withdrawal symptoms did not require an additional Valium according to a very clear detox protocol, he might beg to a nurse or staff member, and occasionally get one—precisely what we do not want to do to an addict trying to get clean.

The danger is not so much in the reinforcement per se, but in the fact that the patient is led to believe (for very therapeutic reasons) that there will be no reinforcement, and yet he or she receives it anyway.  This, in my view, potentially thwarts the whole therapeutic alliance.  It permits the patient’s unhealthy behaviors to prevail over the strict limits that were originally set, despite great efforts (by patient and doctor alike) to adhere to these limits.  As a result, the unhealthy behaviors override conscious, healthy decisions that the patient is often perfectly capable of making.

One solution is, paradoxically, to give more control back to the patient.  For example, prescribing 30 Ambien per month but encouraging the patient to use only 10.  If she uses 12 or 15, no big deal—but it’s fodder for discussion at the next visit.  Similarly, instead of making a statement that “no narcotic refills will be given,” we can give some rough guidelines in the beginning but let the patient know that requests will be evaluated if and when they occur.  Recovering addicts, too, need to know that relapses and craving are not only common, but expected, and instead of seeing them as failures of treatment (the big “no”), they are a natural part of recovery and worthy of discussion and understanding.

In medicine, as in all sciences dealing with human behavior, ambivalence is common.  Preserving and respecting the patient’s ability to make decisions, even those which might be unhealthy, may seem like giving in to weakness.  I disagree.  Instead, it teaches patients to make more thoughtful choices for themselves (both good and bad)—exactly what we want to encourage for optimal health.


Getting Inside The Patient’s Mind

March 4, 2011

As a profession, medicine concerns itself with the treatment of individual human beings, but primarily through a scientific or “objective” lens.  What really counts is not so much a person’s feelings or attitudes (although we try to pay attention to the patient’s subjective experience), but instead the pathology that contributes to those feelings or that experience: the malignant lesion, the abnormal lab value, the broken bone, or the infected tissue.

In psychiatry, despite the impressive inroads of biology, pharmacology, molecular genetics into our field—and despite the bold predictions that accurate molecular diagnosis is right around the corner—the reverse is true, at least from the patient’s perspective.  Patients (generally) don’t care about which molecules are responsible for their depression or anxiety; they do know that they’re depressed or anxious and want help.  Psychiatry is getting ever closer to ignoring this essential reality.

Lately I’ve come across a few great reminders of this principle.  My colleagues over at Shrink Rap recently posted an article about working with patients who are struggling with problems that resemble those that the psychiatrist once experienced.  Indeed, a debate exists within the field as to whether providers should divulge details of their own personal experiences, or whether they should remain detached and objective.  Many psychiatrists see themselves in the latter group, simply offering themselves as a sounding board for the patient’s words and restricting their involvement to medications or other therapeutic interventions that have been planned and agreed to in advance.  This may, however, prevent them from sharing information that may be vital in helping the patient make great progress.

A few weeks ago a friend sent me a link to this video produced by the Janssen pharmaceutical company (makers of Risperdal and Invega, two atypical antipsychotic medications).

The video purports to simulate the experience of a person experiencing psychotic symptoms.  While I can’t attest to its accuracy, it certainly is consistent with written accounts of psychotic experiences, and is (reassuringly!) compatible with what we screen for in the evaluation of a psychotic patient.  Almost like reading a narrative of someone with mental illness (like Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, William Styron’s Darkness Visible, or An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison), videos and vignettes like this one may help psychiatrists to understand more deeply the personal aspect of what we treat.

I also stumbled upon an editorial in the January 2011 issue of Schizophrenia Bulletin by John Strauss, a Yale psychiatrist, entitled “Subjectivity and Severe Psychiatric Disorders.” In it, he argues that in order to practice psychiatry as a “human science” we must pay as much attention to a patient’s subjective experience as we do to the symptoms they report or the signs we observe.  But he also points out that our research tools and our descriptors—the terms we use to describe the dimensions of a person’s disease state—fail to do this.

Strauss argues that, as difficult as it sounds, we must divorce ourselves from the objective scientific tradition that we value so highly, and employ different approaches to understand and experience the subjective phenomena that our patients encounter—essentially to develop a “second kind of knowledge” (the first being the textbook knowledge that all doctors obtain through their training) that is immensely valuable in understanding a patient’s suffering.  He encourages role-playing, journaling, and other experiential tools to help physicians relate to the qualia of a patient’s suffering.

It’s hard to quantify subjective experiences for purposes of insurance billing, or for standardized outcomes measurements like surveys or questionnaires, or for large clinical trials of new pharmaceutical agents.  And because these constitute the reality of today’s medical practice, it is hard for physicians to draw their attention to the subjective experience of patients.  Nevertheless, physicians—and particularly psychiatrists—should remind themselves every so often that they’re dealing with people, not diseases or symptoms, and to challenge themselves to know what that actually means.

By the same token, patients have a right to know that their thoughts and feelings are not just heard, but understood, by their providers.  While the degree of understanding will (obviously) not be precise, patients may truly benefit from a clinician who “knows” more than meets the eye.


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