Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Lab Rat

I work in a hospital and as such I am the recipient of mass e-mailings, many of which are looking for volunteers for particular studies. I fully support the pursuit of research and scientific knowledge and therefore feel I should volunteer whenever possible to be helpful and contribute my small part towards the advancement of science. Usually after reading the exclusion characteristics I cannot participate in the study (things like medications, too little/too much exercise, overnight visits, need to take experimental drugs, too old/too young) but this time I wasn’t able to exclude myself, so away I went.

I responded to a study investigating chronic neck pain. I do have some mild neck pain that is worsened with certain activities like driving or sitting at my computer all day. I pretty much ignore it or try to go to yoga and stretch it out when it gets really tense. This study was looking at people with neck pain and only required two visits. I answered the e-mail and was told that I qualified for the study.

The most difficult part of day one of the study was finding the office in which to meet the investigators. Once found, I was greeted by a very pleasant graduate student who took me through the informed consent and had me fill out several questionnaires about my mood, descriptions of my neck pain, and informed consent. Then a physical therapist gave me a mini physical exam focused around my pain. Ironically, my pain on that day was pretty minimal and so I felt a little sheepish about volunteering for the study at all. Perhaps I was just a big whiner.

Day 2 of the study was for the actual study. I was placed in a chair (similar to a dentist’s chair) in front of a large computer screen and had several monitors attached. There was a band around my head, one around my rib cage, and a blood pressure cuff. Then I was given a “stimulation” to my head with another probe which caused a click followed by my right arm twitching. No, it didn’t hurt, but it was really odd. The two researchers recorded the blips on the screen that were made after various pulses on my head and after asking me to tense and relax. My blood pressure was also recorded. I was given the same questionnaires as on day one. Well enough…

Then they were to repeat the experiments while I was engaged in a mental activity, i.e. counting backwards by ten silently without moving while the probe continued to “stimulate” my scalp and my right arm continued to twitch. OK, this may seem easy while reading this, but let me tell you, I would be counting and then I would hear the click and then I would wait for the twitch and then I would lose track of the counting…. My back began to sweat. We did this a few more times and I began to get the hang of it.

Then, the biggest surprise of all. The researchers said, “the Doctor will come in now to administer the real test”. This was not discussed in the informed consent, which is odd – because usually these consents are exhaustive, as they have to follow strict research guidelines to protect the subjects. She came in with a serious scowl and an attitude to match. Now I had to subtract by SEVENS and had to be “fast and accurate” and she would check halfway through and if I was wrong I would have to start over. My brain fell apart. I couldn’t do more than a few subtractions between the sevens and the twitching and the clicking. My blood pressure recordings rose as did my pulse. Then I had to subtract by twos and fours and fives until my neck really began to hurt…. And more questionnaires were handed to me that began to show that mood was changing as well.

Phew… When it was over, the Doctor apologized for her attitude telling me it was part of the study to stress me out and that was when I knew that I had been had. Yes, it was a study about neck pain, but I am sure that a big part of it was how stress contributes to neck pain. I will not know all the details or what they were really testing until the study is published but I learned a lot about myself that day.

I collected my $100 for participating in the study and drove home. My neck was hurting for real now, but now I knew that I brought this upon myself. I laughed at myself about how I had become angry that I hadn’t been smart enough to see through the study. I was a little embarrassed that I couldn’t successfully subtract by sevens. Then I realized that I am just another human. Another nameless person in the study and that my behavior was typical – human. I shrugged my shoulders repeatedly and tried to relax them as I drove home.


Em said...

What an interesting experience, Elisabeth! Thanks for sharing! Yeah, isn't it weird when something reminds us that, as special and unique as we each are, we're still JUST HUMAN?! :)

Peg said...

That is a great story, I really enjoyed it. I also have neck pain often, which I am SURE is caused by stress, so I actually felt like I was in the study with you myself and wondered how I would have reacted; I probably would have started crying !