Saturday, April 5, 2014

Aches and Pains

At some point about ten years ago, I noticed that I sneezed as soon as I woke up. It happened pretty much every day, to the point where I started keeping tissues by my bedside so I could grab one as I got out of bed. I'd sneeze once, blow my nose to clear it, and start my day.

About five years ago, my morning sneeze turned into several sneezes. Not a huge surprise - Austin is well known for its allergens, including oak pollen, molds, and the dreaded cedar fever. And I've always been prone to allergies, though my usual triggers are privet, ragweed, and (oddly enough) stargazer lilies, an allergen I discovered in the late 80's when I was a travel director staying at high-end hotels that featured the dramatic pink and white blooms in their lobby floral arrangements.

When the morning sneezes progressed to become minor congestion and occasional sinus headaches, I knew I needed to do something more about it than just blow my nose. Experience has taught me that the most effective antihistamine for me is diphenhydramine, aka Benedryl. But I could not take it in the morning because it makes me very sleepy and disrupts my ability to work. So I started taking one pill every night. This worked like a charm: I slept incredibly soundly, and woke up uncongested and clear headed.

At first I only did this during the allergy seasons, but a few years ago I extended it to a nightly routine. Brush teeth, wash face, take a pink pill, floss - these were my evening bathroom chores. If I forgot the pill, I usually realized it when I had problems falling or staying asleep. I'd wake up to my husband's snoring, nudge him to roll over, go to the bathroom and take a pill, and be back asleep in a jiffy.

During the bad cedar season this year, I had to use more powerful medicine, since generic benedryl alone did not work for me. Starting around Christmas, I'd take loritadine (generic version of Claritin) every morning as well as the benedryl at night. This combination worked well for me, even on the days when you could see the yellow pollen pulsing out of the cedar trees, and clouds of pollen marred the Austin skyline.

But in mid-January, I noticed that my joints ached more than usual. Now that I'm in my 50's, I have the usual assortment of aches and pains, but suddenly it was difficult to stand up straight when I first got out of bed, and my shoulders felt so stiff that I could barely lift my arms over my head to shampoo my hair.

At first I did not put two and two together. But I'd had something like this happen back in my 30's when we were living in Baltimore. After a bad bout of ragweed allergies, my doctor had prescribed Zyrtec for me. I had diligently taken it every day for a month, and during that month my allergies cleared up - but I also started having trouble walking up and down the stairs of our house because my knees ached and were stiff. It happened that my prescription lapsed for a few days before I could refill it, and during those few days, my knees stopped hurting. When I resumed the prescription, the pain returned. Now, I'm not a research scientist, but this limited-scope human-subject experiment provided me with more than enough evidence that Zyrtec was not good for me, so I discontinued taking it and reported the experience to my doctor. She agreed with me, and I have avoided Zyrtec and its generics ever since.

Realizing that my morning aches and pains could be similarly related to the medicine I was taking, I stopped taking the claritin every day. And indeed, the aches and pains returned to their usual levels. I still had sore shoulders but at least I could lift my arms. My knees still hurt a bit but not so much that taking the stairs hurt.

Problem solved? Apparently, but I began to wonder what would happen if I stopped taking the benedryl as well. I knew I'd become reliant on it more as a sleeping aid than as allergy relief. But was it causing the various minor aches that I had written up to age? I decided to run another experiment on myself.

For Lent this year, I've given up taking benedryl every night. The first night or two were tough. But my husband's snoring has almost gone away in the past six months, now that he uses a mouth guard at night, and I've found that earplugs work quite well for helping me tune out any of the stray noises that bother me, including a huge thunderstorm in mid-March.

I'm four weeks in to this experiment now. I have noticed that the pain in my shoulders is almost gone, and my knees too feel better. I'm sleeping very soundly every night, even without earplugs. And I have not been sneezing in the morning - which is what started this whole thing in the first place.

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