About Shingles

What is Shingles?
Shingles is not a skin rash; shingles is an extremely painful inflammation of the nerve ganglion. Which nerve cluster gets impacted varies between victims of the virus. Shingles is caused by the chicken pox virus. After a bout of chicken pox, the virus goes dormant, hiding out in the nerve of its choice until years later when it attacks.

Herpes zoster is the technical name for the virus that causes shingles. The inflammation of the nerve can lead to permanent damage and thus long term or even permanent pain. The technical term for this is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). It's what I've come to describe simply as 'forever pain'.

An Arginine Connection?
From what little I knew about shingles before I contracted it, I thought it only impacted the elderly or the immune-compromised. Now I know it can hit anyone who has ever had chicken pox, and at any age even if in otherwise perfect health. I was young and healthy, yet I got it. I wanted to know why.

After much research, I believe an inadvertent very high intake of the amino acid arginine led to my contracting shingles. I wasn't supplementing with arginine, but had switched from dairy to almond milk, was consuming a lot of shellfish, and snacking on pistachio nuts. All three are very high sources of arginine. Ironically, the dairy I had given up is high in lystine, an amino acid believed to slow the progression of shingles. In short, I think I shot myself in the foot with this diet I went on.

Apparently, a lot of body builders do supplement with L-arginine. I discovered this while searching for general shingles information which kept landing me in body builder forums. Seems there are a lot of body builders taking this supplement who encounter shingles. It's up to you, the reader, to decide whether the arginine / shingles connection is valid or not. I'm not a doctor and can only speak from my own experience. FWIW, I've since switched back to dairy.

Getting a Diagnosis and Treatment
Because it took so long for me to get a diagnosis, I wasn't a candidate for the antiviral treatment which apparently is only effective if taken within 72 hours. At first I thought this was a very bad thing, but the more I've read about aclovir and other antiviral meds, it's made me wonder if I actually got lucky. The first things I read claimed there were almost no side effects (just some headache or nausea). So had it been prescribed, I'm sure I would have taken it.

Further reading, including getting hold of the interactions guide for aclovir, revealed there are some pretty serious side effects with antiviral drugs. Not least of these is a penchant for crystallizing in the renal passages which can lead to even more severe complications.

Interestingly, the hearburn med Tagament (aka Cimetidine) has shown very promising treatment results for shingles in limited trials. Unfortunately, because the drug is no longer under patent protection, there's no financial incentive for those trials to continue. After three weeks of constant pain from shingles, I opted to give Tagament a go, taking 200mg 3x a day and a double dose of 400mg at bedtime.

Coping with the Pain of Shingles
Pain relief is tricky. The worst pain for many shingles sufferers, including myself, seems to come at night. Or shall I say, the wee hours of the morning. Obviously this greatly hampers sleep and lack of sleep makes everything worse. It's a very cruel catch-22.

Alternately applying ice packs and soaking in warm baths helps, but it's time consuming. I found little to no relief with narcotic pain meds such as percoset (which isn't a viable long term solution even if it had worked). I ended up opting for Lidoderm (Lidocaine 5%) patches which (a) work pretty quickly, usually within 20 minutes; and (b) don't lead to loopiness, drowsiness, or any other function-hampering effects.

Forever Pain
The chance of postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) terrifies me. PHN is long term or even permanent pain resulting from shingles. I've come to call it 'forever pain'. I don't want to scare anyone by calling out this risk, but I think it's important that folks know about the risk. Shingles is not the trivial skin rash some websites (even medical ones) make it out to be. You may or may not have a rash. The rash, if any, may or may not be severe. But the nerve pain that shingles causes is a sure thing. Depending on which nerve is targeted, your shingles pain may be worse or better than others.

The pain can be debilitating. If you're able to get the shingles vaccine, do so. If you do contract shingles, get on the appropriate treatment right away. If you have any unexplained severe burning vice-like pain on one side of your body - regardless of where - insist that the doctors run a blood test to check for shingles. The sooner you get diagnosed, the sooner you can begin treatment, and the better your chances are for a full recovery.

I don't pretend to be an expert on shingles; I can only speak from my own experience battling this dreadful disease. This blog was created in the hopes that what I've learned might help someone else, even if just a little. For any of you out there coping with the pain of shingles, you have my deepest sympathies. {{{hugs}}}