Has 12 year old cranioplasty turned me into a capacitor?
January 15, 2013 3:40 PM   Subscribe

Nearly 12 years ago I underwent cranioplasty, which involved dissimilar metals being added to the inside of my skull. Could it be possible that I'm generating a low voltage current? This would explain roughly 90% of the unexplained symptoms I've noticed since that time. This seems like a case of electrochemical capacitance to me. I understand that YANMD; in fact, it may even be the case that YARNAD. That's just fine, I don't really want anyone's 'medical' advice. What I need is some advice on what questions to ask and which specialists I 'should' actually be seeing to properly diagnose and resolve these issues.

On April Fool's Day in 2001, I was riding my Suzuki RM125 on a gravel road in WV. In a section comprised mostly of ballast rock due to it's proximity to the railroad, one of the rocks tore open my front tire. This, in turn, caused the front rim to immediately sink deep into the roadbed as the bike began flipping end over end at around 55 mph; I was NOT wearing a helmet.

Yes, I know, I was am a fool. However, for many years after that day, most residents of the local area wear their helmets. I, myself, have worn one ever since that day.

I underwent cranioplasty in Cumberland, MD; resulting in one 1 inch by 4 inch spring steel plate, 4 brass screws, 29 surgical steel staples and, though not metallic, 209 stitches to finally repair and then reupholster the exterior wall of my left frontal sinus cavity. The 4 brass screws are threaded through my skull into the plate on the backside of my frontal bone inside the sinus cavity.

Over the years I have suffered from severe to extreme migraines seemingly brought on by no apparent cause, random specific and regional muscle spasms that can sometimes last ten to twelve minutes, an odd slightly metallic taste when wearing shoes that prevent me from grounding naturally, most of the time I can discharge 'static' electricity even when grounded, and other phenomena seemingly related to electrical current in some way. These are all magnified by the simple act of pressing my tongue against the roof of my mouth. None of those symptoms mentioned have ever really gotten a satisfactory diagnosis over the years, other than "Oh yeah, you do have a metal plate in your head."; as if that just explains it. The one doctor whose diagnosis was anywhere close to what I believe is happening suggested only about 80% of my neurons were actually able to collect their intended signals resulting in a roughly 20% loss of all signal traffic. While his diagnosis ended up being incorrect in the end, he never satisfactorily offered a cause or any treatment that had any effect on these 'inconveniences' I continue to suffer.

Other that the cranioplasty, I am in reasonably good shape and overall health. If I do have any undiagnosed mental disability, it hasn't, at this point, affected my ability to function in everyday life. I am not currently on any medication

I don't want anyone's medical advice. I have a doctor for that; I will eventually have other doctors for even more of that. What I want is to brainstorm with the hive mind to ensure I'm on the right track with this. These are the questions I know I have:

1 What questions should I be asking my doctor?
2 What specialists should he be referring me to?
3 What specialists should I be demanding he also refer me to if he doesn't on his own?
4 What questions should I be asking the specialist?
5 Should I have more questions about this issue that I'm not thinking of?
posted by schade to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
So I don't know a thing about the medical concerns, but steel and brass have relative anodic indices of about 0.15V. Assuming they're unplated and in substantial direct contact, that's not very much. It's very nearly inert, in fact. I cannot begin to make a conjecture about the relationship between the metals in your head and your symptoms, but I would be surprised if it had anything to do with the dissimilar metals used.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 4:06 PM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm confused as to why you think electricity is being generated by steel and brass that was put into your body. Just because two different metals are in contact with one another does not mean that they create electricity. Further, I don't understand the connection between the symptoms you've listed and the presence of electricity.

Perhaps there is some connection between migraines and electricity, but the body produces its own electrical impulses, so if there were a connection between migraines and electricity, it's not clear to me how you would determine that the cause is the presence of these pieces of metal in your skull.
posted by dfriedman at 4:19 PM on January 15, 2013

Capacitance is not the term you want here, by the way: that's about storing electricity. You'd need a second metal plate positioned parallel to the first with an insulator between them to store (a very small amount of) electricity.

The brass screws against the steel could generate a tiny amount of electrical current, since the body is a (weakly) electrolytic environment. The voltage would be very low (between 0.10 to 0.15 volts depending on the type of brass and steel used) and the current generated would be proportional to both the area of contact between the metals and the strength of the electrolyte, which, as I said, is weak. Such a reaction will eventually consume the materials, so we can assume it is not very strong, otherwise they would not have used those materials for a repair meant to last the rest of your life. Or steps might have been taken to prevent the dissimilar metals from coming into contact at all; for example, washers or spacers made of an inert plastic or silicone could have been used. I would in any case not expect any such current to have any detectable medical effects due to these materials' long history of use in medicine. In short, I doubt this is the root of your current symptoms, and seems to pointedly ignore the more obvious cause.

I am not a doctor, but the symptoms you are having seem to me consistent with once having suffered a nasty head injury, which has resulted in some brain damage. To me, this sounds far more likely to be the root of the problem. The brain having no real healing capacity, and our understanding of its working being woefully incomplete in any case, the likelihood that anyone will be able to explain your symptoms beyond that, let alone provide some relief for them, is probably pretty slim. I sincerely doubt it will matter how many specialists you see or what questions you ask them.

Someone I know tragically suffered a serious stroke in his early 30s and has simply had to accept that his brain simply won't work correctly ever again. He is in pain all the time and no drugs help, since the pain has no cause outside his damaged brain. He also suffers psychological effects, such as poor impulse control and depression. In your shoes, I would count myself lucky that the aftereffects are relatively minor and marvel that modern medicine put me back together so well.
posted by kindall at 4:25 PM on January 15, 2013 [15 favorites]

I'm the OP's live-in girlfriend, and have a little bit to add.

On occasion, he's been known to tell me that it feels as if the screws have "adjusted", like backed out and sometimes that it feels like the plate has "shifted" a bit.

His reactions to weather (barometric shifts, thunder, and other loud noises/bass) are pretty extreme, regardless of how well he plays it down. Nearly paralyzing pain. If anyone has any advice to help this, it's MUCH appreciated.

Also, he has the worst case of electrostatic shock I've ever seen. Absolutely cannot touch anything metal when it's cold or there's a shock.

Also, a personal thanks, from me, for everyone's comments. I'm glad he's *finally* posted this.
posted by MuChao at 8:30 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fascinating. Sounds to me like something genuinely weird is going on. I strongly suggest you write to Oliver Sacks and tell him what you told us.
posted by fullerenedream at 8:41 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

So, in my experience, when you come in with a whole pile of seemingly unrelated symptoms to a doctor (which is to say, no medical explanation for why they would be linked)--the doctor tends to get a little overwhelmed because they are not Dr. House. You need to go about this systematically and eliminate whatever variables you can. The sensation of the plate moving and the screws moving sounds like a good place to start, because if the thing is moving around and shouldn't be, then that probably can be fixed, and give you one less variable to consider.

Headaches, bad taste in the mouth, muscle spasms sound like things that could just be a result of your injury. The shocks are unusual, although I myself have gone through phases where everything shocked me and I never knew why (no plates in my head). A humidifier helps a lot. (Come to think of it, it might also help the bad taste in your mouth because you may just have dry mouth or a dry throat from breathing all that dry winter air, especially if your injury compromised your ability to produce saliva.)

tl;dr: I would see if the plate placement could be addressed, and see if that changes any of your other symptoms.
posted by elizeh at 8:52 PM on January 15, 2013

"electrochemistry" is the behaviour of metals in a dielectric such as your body - perhaps a tiny voltage gradient is shifting ions off one of the metals and into the body? Or pulling them out of the body and plating the screws?

To me (IANAD) most or all of the symptoms sound like the mundane result of there physically being a foreign object bolted into a damaged skull, and not electrical. But if there is something going on with charge or chemistry, it's still unlikely to be causing everything - you'd want to try narrow things down between injury and electricity.

It might also be that the plate is not causing electrical effects, but making parts of you mor exposed to the normal charge that everyone has.

I suggest experiments. You say he can't touch metal or there is a shock. Well test this wth another person - is he creating sparks that the other person isn't, or is he feeling sparks that are too minor for the other person to notice? (Or is he more aware of shocks and notices them more even though the other person feels the same number but cares less?)
This sort of thing might help figure out what the symptom actually is.
posted by anonymisc at 10:12 PM on January 15, 2013

I have a very similar story. I, too, am a fool. Riding a dirt bike, sans helmet, tire gets in a washout (rut) and throws me over the handle bar. Resulting in a broken neck, broken collar bone and big ole gash in the head. They repaired my neck by harvesting bone from my hip and fusing my vertebrae (wire/screws). It is am impressive x-ray, for sure.

Over the years, my body is very sensitive to change in temp, humidity and barometric changes. In the fall and spring, there are nights that my neck/head ache too much to get a real sleep. My doctor told me (during recovery) that I will have early symptoms of arthritis and not to be surprised as I age how it manifests.
posted by LeanGreen at 7:55 AM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

First, let me say that I'm sorry you are suffering, and I hope you can find some resolution somehow. Second, you are very fortunate to be alive - my father's best friend had a similar accident in 1996, and it didn't go so well for him.

I have a degree in electrical engineering and I work in a neuroimaging research lab. I am not a doctor, and I don't have any real medical experience - this is not medical advice - I will share what I know and I hope it helps your understanding a bit.

Where I work, we see patients with traumatic brain injuries with some frequency. Many have similar symptoms to you (general weirdness, sensitivity to atmosphere changes, tingling/ghost sensations, etc.). They don't have plates - or they couldn't go in the MRI - but the things on your list are not unheard of. The brain is not very well understood, and many of these things are just simply inexplicable at our level of knowledge.

Your head plate doesn't act as a capacitor - and capacitors don't generate electricity anyway, they only store it. The plate is acting more like a battery - assuming that it is electrically active at all. If it is electrically active, it wouldn't be large enough that you could sense it, and it certainly couldn't generate any static electric effects.

It is true that electo-magnetic forces can interfere with brain function. One of the tools we use in research is a Trans-Cranial Magnetic Stimulator, which does just that. However, the power output of that device is thousands or millions of times greater than what your plate could generate.

Deep brain stimulation has also been used to treat some disorders, and with some success. But again, the powers used are far in excess of what your plate is capable of.

You're not totally off in left field. But, I do think you are not wholly correct, either.

A good place to start is looking at the fitment of the plate - your head changes shape as you age or gain/lose weight. The plate might not fit so well anymore, or have otherwise shifted. Or there might be some material degradation in the bones in that area. It might also pay to explore having the metal plate removed and replaced with either a bone graft or plastic. There are a few options there. Again, I am not a doctor, but those are questions I'd find answers to if I were in your shoes.

Treatment for the other symptoms will probably be along the lines of anti-seizure treatments. You don't have totally unheard of symptoms. A psychiatrist or neurologist with experience in dealing with head/brain trauma would likely help you most in nailing that down.

You'll probably need to talk to a few doctors and get a few opinions. This sort of problem can be difficult to treat, and the treatments might not work that great or come with side-effects. Don't expect a panacea. That said, you might be able to improve on things and I hope you are able to.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:47 AM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: IANAD. That said, this is what I would do in your situation.

1 What questions should I be asking my doctor?
I would list down all your symptoms, and emphasize what specific worry brought you to the doctor. I would especially mention the reaction to weather changes (it actually sounds like large changes in external air pressure, tbh) and the headaches. Also ask them to check the placement of the plate.

Also, bring your concerns up about the electrical/battery effect to your doctor. Even if you think it may sound nonsensical, you live with your body for 24 hours a day and generally you'll know if something's up even if you don't know why.

2 What specialists should he be referring me to?
A neurologist or neurosurgeon. Better if he's experienced with head trauma or complications of brain/cranial surgery.

I'm not sure about the rest, sorry. I hope you'll be able to find some relief soon.
posted by rozaine at 11:19 AM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all for your information and the answers you have given me. I chose my best answer based on rozaine actually answering 2 of the questions I actually listed.

Neither my significant other nor myself, though of consulting an 'actual' neurosurgeon; go figure.

I will be making an appointment so that I can talk this over with my physician. We have a lot of things to discuss; he and I.
posted by schade at 8:51 PM on January 21, 2013

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