Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Spine In Psychiatric Practice

I am not talking about the spine as a metaphor, I am talking about the real spine.  I am also not going to discuss some alternate therapies affecting the spine, I am going to refer to it only in the context of actual medical practice.  Maybe it was my interest in chronic pain and neurosurgery that led me to the observations, but many years ago I started to notice the high number of patients who were seeing me and had associated spine problems either associated with their psychiatric disorder or making it worse. As far as I can tell, this problem is really not well addressed in the psychiatric literature.

The spectrum of spinal disorder presentations varied from undiagnosed, to incorrectly diagnosed, to diagnosed and treated many times.  There is also the issue of how normal imaging studies vary greatly with age and eventually produce radiology reports that sound pathological but do not necessarily explain the observed pain or disability.  The usual psychiatric diagnoses included depression, anxiety, insomnia, and chronic pain.  The correct diagnoses were most often only possible by a detailed discussion of the problem.  In many cases the patients I was seeing had never actually seen a physician for back pain.  Let me illustrate with a couple of examples (none of these vignettes represent actual patients).

Patient A is a 35 year old woman being seen for depression.  She is in a stressful work situation because she is expected to be physically vigorous and move many 40 pound boxes of paper per day, but she is limited by neck pain and muscle atrophy in the left arm.  She injured her neck at a different job 5 years earlier lifting a heavy piece of equipment down from a shelf.  She felt immediate neck pain and over the next several weeks had muscle twitching in her left arm.  She did not have health insurance from her employer and was never assessed for the injury.  She has had daily pain since the injury and on days where she has more physical activity, she has more pain and more depression.  She is interested in treating the depression.

Patient B is a 50 year old man being seen for depression and insomnia.  He has a 5 year history of taking zolpidem for insomnia.  He is referred by his primary care physician because he has had to increase the dose of zolpidem to 20 mg/day because of worsening insomnia.  The patient gives a history of no longer being able to sleep on his right side because he has neck pain with radiation to the shoulder that resolves when he changes his sleeping position.  He has seen the Silenor and Lunesta commercials and is interested in changing his sleep medication.

Patient C is a 60 year old woman with a history of multiple upper and lower back procedures including fusions, discectomies, and foraminotomies.  She has also had surgical complications including infections and a cerebrospinal fluid leak.  She is taking oxycodone 40 mg QID with addition 5-10 mg prn doses of oxycodone.  She is also taking lorazepam 1 mg TID for anxiety and drinks wine on a daily basis.  She is referred for treatment of depression and chronic pain.

These three descriptions of patients highlight a number of problems unique to psychiatric practice.  Psychiatrists often see people with degenerative or traumatic changes to their spine that have never been assessed by a physician.  We also see patients who have had intensive surgical treatment and who have been treated in pain clinics for a long time before anyone thought to refer them to a psychiatrist.  In both cases an antidepressant seems to be a proxy for a psychiatric evaluation or an interview that seeks to determine if the spinal problem is a cause of depression, insomnia, or anxiety.  That type of evaluation is fairly straightforward but it does require time and the ability to do a medical and neurological review of systems and recognize common patterns of spinal syndromes.  The risks are minimal and the potential rewards are great for the patient.  I have had people ask me why I was asking them so many "medical" questions or report that their primary care physician wanted to know the same thing.   But I have also had people tell me that they were glad to know that they really had chronic pain from a fixable spinal problem rather than chronic insomnia and a need to take sleep medication forever.

This issue also highlights the issue of a physical exam in psychiatric practice.  When is it necessary and in what context can it be done?  In my first job I recall asking the clinic administrator whether she would provide a room and basic equipment for a physical exam.  She said that she would but in the three years I worked there it never happened.  If there is no adequate place to examine a patient I don't think an examination should be done.  There is also the question of the emotional relationship with the patient.  Many people seeing psychiatrists consider them to be their primary physician and have had many intense discussions with them over the years.  Psychiatrists should be aware of this emotional context and the meaning of any physical touch that occurs in that context and keep the assessment at the verbal level.  Referral to a physician who you know does a thorough neurological and spine exam is indicated for most cases, but in many cases you are seeing people referred from these physicians and it has already been done.  What about imaging studies?  My rule of thumb is to do them only if the patient has been physically examined.  I have physically examined people only in acute care settings and ordered imaging studies (CT and MRI) in that context.

On the positive side a lot can be done within the constraints outlined above, first and foremost is a detailed evaluation of the problem.  How is it that insomnia from neck pain can be treated for years as primary insomnia without any attention being paid to the cervical spine pain as being the likely source of that insomnia?  The only explanation I can come up with is a cursory evaluation of the pain.  Borrowing a page from Engel any psychiatric evaluation of a person with depression or anxiety, insomnia, and pain needs to be as comprehensive as possible.  The evolution of those problems since childhood and the relationship to physical and psychological trauma as well as other major life events needs to be detailed.  Assessing the patient for any possible addictions is another requirement.  A description of the pain and associated neurological symptoms is critical.  I like to review old records, imaging reports and the images themselves if possible.  There are a few of the highlights of what is necessary to come up with a psychiatric plan of care for people with spinal problems.  In many cases, a psychiatrist is the only person addressing their pain, even though they have a known diagnosis of degenerative disk disease and chronic back pain.  It is very useful to have referral patterns and treatment plans established to be able to offer treatment of the pain or associated spinal problem in addition to addressing the identified psychiatric syndrome.

The ability to help this group of patients also has training implications.  You don't learn about the spine, neurosurgery or neurology doing psychiatry rotations in medical school.  I was fortunate enough to have intensive exposure to these areas and to excellent clinicians.  I was also fortunate to work in a multispecialty clinic for 23 years where I had the benefit of discussing these cases with specialists from all fields.  I was also able to walk down to Radiology and discuss films with an excellent neuroradiologist.  The training suggested by Insel with a clinical neuroscience in psychiatry, neurology, and neurosurgery would enhance the evaluation of these problems. 

It pays to focus on both the central and peripheral nervous system when indicated.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

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