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Heat-packs in mittens. Flannel-lined pants. Hands tucked under the arms. Warm running water to bring circulation back to the fingers.

Just typical steps taken by northerners to survive the winter cold? For Alice Olson, the stakes were higher.

Alice has Raynaud’s disease -- a vascular disorder characterized by constriction of the arteries in the fingers and skin in response to cold temperatures. It can be painful, fatiguing and potentially dangerous, leading to skin ulcers, tissue death, even amputations.

Diagnosed in 1988, Alice was well on her way to accepting the limitations brought on by Raynaud’s. She spent minimal time outdoors in the winter, steered clear of refrigerated sections of grocery stores in summer, and wore layers of clothes year-round.

Four years ago the outlook brightened! She found a surprising answer -- all because of a back injury.

Curious and helpful

The moment Alice twisted, she knew she was in trouble. It was 2007 and she and her husband, Dick, were unloading 100-pound feed sacks on their cattle farm in northwestern Minnesota.

She tried ultrasound treatments, acupuncture, chiropractic care and more, but none brought relief. Next she sought help from her primary care physician Dr. Stephen Nordmark at Sanford Health Detroit Lakes Clinic. Tests and a neurosurgery consultation led to an appointment at Sanford Pain Management.

After a thorough assessment of her back problem, pain management physician Dr. Majid Ghazi administered an epidural -- a common treatment that involves precisely injecting medication into the spinal area to help relieve pain. While Alice lay on the procedure table for the epidural, Dr. Ghazi noticed something else.

“He saw my hands and asked what was wrong,” recalls Alice. They were swollen and dark blue.

She told him about her longstanding Raynaud’s. His reaction shocked her.

“Dr. Ghazi was curious and really wanted to help,” she says. “I appreciated his interest.”

She listened as he described an innovative approach to managing Raynaud’s: spinal cord stimulation.

“I was skeptical, yet willing to learn more,” she says. “There’s no cure for Raynaud’s, but I’m always open to what might help.”

Unexpected relief

Alice read the information and watched the DVD provided by Dr. Ghazi. She learned a spinal cord stimulator uses pulsed electricity to treat chronic pain. Research has shown success in treating other conditions, too. In Raynaud’s, for example, the stimulator can dilate the arteries to improve blood flow and bring warmth.

The stimulator doesn’t work for everybody, which is why Dr. Ghazi recommended a trial test prior to permanent implantation. To her amazement, the test brought positive results. Her response to cold diminished considerably. Her fingers no longer turned white, then blue, then red when the circulation returned. No more pain either.

“The stimulator isn’t a cure, but it sure brings relief,” says Alice.

The stimulator was permanently implanted several days later. After four years she still gets good results, including increased flexibility in her hand.

Today Alice returns to Sanford Pain Management periodically to ensure optimal functioning of the stimulator. She also has a hand-held controller to increase the electrical pulses as needed, such as being outdoors on an especially cold day or staying out longer than usual.

Others have noticed the difference, too. “My husband used to say my hands felt like ice cakes. Now he says they’re hot,” she says, laughing.

The benefit Alice most appreciates is more energy. Her body no longer has to work so hard to stay warm, plus she was able to stop the medication that carried a side-effect of fatigue.

And the back pain? That gradually resolved after the epidural and hasn’t returned since. She now takes extra care in lifting, making sure she practices good body mechanics.

More than medicine

Alice is the first to say that dealing with a chronic condition such as Raynaud’s requires more than medical technology. It involves lifestyle changes, too, and attitude adjustment.

“I’d love to spend a lot more time deer hunting, but even with help from the stimulator, I need to protect myself from the cold,” she says. “I’ve learned to give in when I need to, but never give up.”

Alice’s determination goes back to her college years when she played volleyball, basketball and softball. Today at age 55 she effortlessly climbs over the fence and into the cattle pen. Evening chores will soon begin.

“I’m living for today, doing what I’m able to do,” she says. She takes joy in caring for the cattle, playing with her grandkids, working at Menard’s and giving a home to stray cats and dogs.

“My message to anyone with chronic pain is don’t give up. Seek help, ask questions, be willing to try what’s available and give it time,” she says. “I found something that worked for me -- and you can, too!”

Posted Date: January 2012