Going Back in Time…

When the ‘Guidelines for Commissioners of Services with Medically Unexplained Symptoms‘ document was first published a year or so ago, there were those in the Science for ME forum who were sceptical about whether the project was viable. Prof Jonathan Edwards commented: “I actually think this guidance will fall completely flat. No patients are going to want to be referred to a clinic for MUS. Moreover, no psychologists or OTs are going to want to work in a clinic for MUS.

However, forum member Tab Hoarder was quick to correct this viewpoint. She had direct experience of a MUS service in action and was in the midst of it even as she responded:

“I am approaching 5 months spent living in an inpatient ‘neuropsychiatric’ rehab unit, where the BPS model is used to treat ‘functional’ disorders. Yes these terms are fancier than ‘Medically Unexplained Symptoms’ but the core principals are the same. Let me tell you, this MUS bandwagon has legs. It will go far. Patients here are delighted with their care, feel they are being taken very seriously at last, and are totally open to all the repressed trauma Freudian speculation. When I try to spark some debate about what goes on here, I am met with smirks, rolled eyes, and awkward silences. Patients and staff alike view me as a precocious kid with a ‘persecution complex’. If you start talking about NHS shortcuts, big pharma etc you’re just seen as a conspiracy theorist.

“As for the staff, yes there will always be psychs, OTs and physios to fill these roles. Believe me. The therapy team here are 99% white, in their 20s, and even some internationals (Aussie, French). This place has a national reputation. These are hotshot psych grads, moving to the Big Smoke on what I assume is a comfortable wage, cutting their teeth on some serious psychobabble. It’s not bottom-of-the-heap work to them. Quite the opposite, they consider this cutting edge. They boast endlessly about their long waiting list and high success rates. All the outcome measures used are as subjective as it gets. We are constantly drenched with rhetoric of road-to-recovery, progress, rehab, goals, coming out of your comfort zone and blah blah blah. It’s re-education.

“MUS clinics will not be the feature of a gritty exposé, hitting tabloid front pages. They will get away with it and dress it up as life-changing treatment like this place does. Very scary, and very worrying. Just think of the amount of undetected organic health problems being neglected. It’s like regression, like we’re going back in time, denying the existence of modern medicine.”

Those final words of Tab Hoarder’s account seem to hang in the air like a chilling warning. Can it really come to this?

But this seems to be the way things are going. So many people seem to be willing to embrace MUS because it’s a simple answer to a complex question. Rather than disentangle the complex biochemistry of medical conditions that are not understood, all you have to do is delve into the patient’s story and focus on a potential source of trauma. It won’t be hard to find because – let’s face it – all of us have them. Then you apply the CBT that you learnt on your inexpensive six month training course and that’s the problem sorted. A high rate of success is guaranteed because all you measure is whether the patient says they feel better – and you’ve already told them they do as part of the therapy. Most of the patients embrace the concept of MUS as well, because after months and possibly years of being told there’s nothing wrong with them because ‘all the tests are negative’, they’re finally being given an explanation and the hope of a cure.

So MUS is simple, cheap to treat, and generally convenient for all concerned. Who would possibly be so churlish as to argue that the concept is fundamentally flawed: that diagnosis of physical illness will often be overlooked or delayed – with damaging and sometimes fatal consequences.

I asked Tab Hoarder if there were other people on the ward with M.E.

“No,” she said, “I am the only person with an ME diagnosis, though they hate the term. The psych hates the ‘myelitis’ because he believes there’s no evidence of spinal cord inflammation. Everyone else on the “functional pathway” has FND or Functional Neurological Disorder, including lots of ‘medically unexplained’ seizures. People here are pleased with that term, don’t believe it’s a dustbin diagnosis, and even referenced that Jon Stone guy mentioned on your blog.

“There is also an “organic” pathway here. These patients generally have epilepsy or a brain injury. They are still being treated with the BPS stuff.

“Like you, I think all this functional/organic stuff is stupid, and hopefully the future will be a place where these terms don’t exist and all conditions are treated biomedically.”

Such a plan would be the sane alternative, but it does not seem to be likely any time soon. Things seem to be headed in the opposite direction. Psychiatry is subsuming neurology, not the other way round.

I owe Tab Hoarder an apology. I obtained her permission to use this account of her inpatient experience on my blog almost a year ago, intending to include it in one of the MUS posts I was going to write, but somehow or other up until now it never quite seemed to fit. Now, after the previous post on FND, it fits only too well, I’m afraid. A year ago, the fact that most of the patients in the ward had a diagnosis of FND made little impression on me. Now it is all too obvious confirmation that the FND strand of the MUS strategy was already up and running back then – and evidence also (albeit anecdotal) that even those who are accepted as having a physical condition can also be subject to the BPS regime. It makes you wonder if there will soon come a time when all neurological patients – perhaps indeed patients of all kinds – will be expected to undergo the search for buried trauma – just in case..

2 thoughts on “Going Back in Time…”

  1. Beard, who popularized the term ‘neurasthenia’ in the C19th, seems to have appreciated that one day science might advance far enough to uncover physical explanations for those phenomena that he could only offer a psychological explanation for. He couldn’t possibly have imagined all the techniques and tests that scientists now have at their disposal to unpick medical conundra . And yet psychiatrists still cling to the past with their ridiculous belief system…….and people gullibly follow. Why? Because, as you so correctly point out ,- “it’s a simple answer to a complex question”. It’s easier and lazier for them to believe that people’s mental distress is causing their physical symptoms than to study, understand and remember all that difficult new-fangled science stuff. Well that and old-fashioned prejudice, of course.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I should add that MUS is not a side-issue or minor worry for patients with ME, it is the greatest threat. I say this because the model for MUS has been built on the management model for ME/CFS and ME/CFS is at the heart of it. The same people are behind ME/CFS, MUS and IAPT, and have been for decades. Even if the Government / NHS at some point caves in under pressure and recognizes ME as a biomedical condition, while MUS remains as a viable differential diagnosis then many patients, possibly the majority, could find themselves stuck for several more decades in the CFS mental health category for either not exactly meeting the definition of ME or for getting a negative result to a biomarker test.

    Liked by 1 person

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