What is "shingles"?
Shingles is a viral infection that causes a rash and, in some patients, debilitating pain. Varicella zoster, the virus that causes chickenpox, can reappear in later life as shingles. Adults over 75 and people with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable.
Historically, shingles has been treated with antiviral and pain medications, antidepressants and topical creams. A newer technology, high-intensity light therapy with the HILT stem laser, has been successful in reducing pain in sessions that last only 10 or 15 minutes. It's now available in Connecticut only at the Hartford Hospital Pain Treatment Center.
Taking Aim at Post-Shingles Pain
“My pain was so intense that I said in the hospital, ‘if you can’t get this pain under control, just shoot me.’”
Margery Wildey may be 71 years old, but she’s never let her age stop her from living her life to the fullest. In fact, she and her husband were vacationing in the Dominican Republic when she came down with shingles—a reactivation of the chicken pox virus that millions of Americans suffer from at some point in their lives.
She spent four days in a hospital there, and when she returned, she went straight to her rheumatologist who started her on opioids, then switched her to Lyrica, then to gabapentin, which was the medication that works best for her. But working best didn’t mean pain relief for Wildey. She needed more concentrated care. Her doctor recommended her to Hartford Hospital Pain Treatment Center.
“Up until I started at the pain clinic, I was going to bed every night with an ice pack on my head, and that’s with the pain medication. I would wake up crying in the night. I couldn’t take it,” Wildey said. “Before I started the laser treatment, I had scratched all the freckles off the side of my face. It gets very itchy at the spot, and the pain would shoot down my forehead like a bolt of electricity.”
Fed up and out of options, Wildey attended an informational meeting about Hartford Healthcare’s HILT stem laser treatment—a high intensity light therapy that stimulates the patient’s own cells to decrease inflammation and heal damaged tissues around the painful areas. This type of laser device, available at the Hartford Hospital Pain Treatment Center, is the only one of its kind in the state of CT. Wildey said the treatments started working within two weeks.
“I was skeptical. I remembered walking out of that meeting telling my husband this was just another gimmick, but I was wrong,” she said. “I was also hesitant to think it was working, but now I’m sure it’s making a big difference.”
Wildey has been undergoing laser treatments for three months. She started at three times a week, but now has one session every two weeks. Her pain level has gone from a consistent 8 down to a 2 at most, with many days registering hardly any pain at all. She’s gone from taking 600 mg of gabapentin five times a day to just two and a half pills a day.
“I’m so much better, I have to make a conscious effort to take my medicine on time, because I don’t feel physical triggers,” she said. “Before, I would watch the clock and take it as soon as I could.”
Wildey is suffering from post herpetic neuraligia, and thus far the HILT laser treatment has proven very successful in treating this type of pain. The sessions take just 10 to 15 minutes, and Wildey said they’re very easy and comfortable. She puts on yellow goggles to protect her eyes, and they laser her forehead and the nerves right around the ears. “You feel a little warmth,” she said, “but it doesn’t hurt.”
In addition to the treatments, Wildey takes gabapentin three times a day, and puts a topical cream on her forehead twice a day, which she says eases the pain as well. . She’s also taking Procura at the request of the pain clinic, which she said makes her body feel more connected and whole. Ideally, she’d like to go off the gabapentin completely, use the laser treatment once a month and continue the Procura and topical cream as needed.
For now, though, you can find her on a cruise ship. She and her husband are leaving this week on their next adventure, pain-free.