Monday February 4, 2013

Right about now, most Vermont motorcyclists are starting to notice a slight tremor in both hands. Maybe the right shakes a little more than the left; it’s the throttle hand, after all. Over the next two or three months, the condition only gets worse. In many houses, the helmet suddenly appears on the coffee table. There are probably more spats with the partner or kids, usually the cyclist starts to binge eat, and eventually even a glimpse of the family car produces a slight wave of nausea. All of this is normal. The syndrome, known as Biker’s Palsy (BP), is widespread here in the Northeast and in the upper Midwest. It’s pretty rare in the U.S. Sunbelt; there has never been a documented case in California.

As with a lot of medical syndromes, doctors are often at a loss. My friend and GP for 37 years just looked at me and shook his head. "It’s like lower back pain," he said. "Ninety-five percent of all cases clear up in about three months." Fine. But what does one do in the meantime?

I recently ran across a small study in the New England Journal of Medicine where about 30 percent of the subjects reported reduced symptoms for up to 10 days after a single viewing of the Wild One with Marlin Brando. The placebo group watched Star Wars and saw no reduction in symptoms.

In another study, with more subjects this time, the experience of sitting on a sawhorse and making sounds like "Vroom, Vroom" produced no detectable relief.


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That said, the editor of JAMA, where the study was published, called the report "poorly designed, and deeply flawed." It turns out that he rides a Ducati Monster and has called for a more "realistic" study with rental bikes in place of the sawhorses. Reportedly, the new study would break the afflicted into three groups: real bikes with the motor running, real bikes with the ignition off, and a sawhorse group. A Barcalounger control group has been rejected because it would "introduce another, confounding variable."

I have personal experience with Biker’s Palsy, and I have learned that there are a few, highly effective treatments. Like a lot of medical/psychological treatments though, relief from the syndrome requires a commitment of time and, more importantly, money. It’s not like doing yoga or light therapy at home.

The simplest of these treatments only provides relief for about three weeks, but is also pretty cost effective. It’s the Progressive Motorcycle show in Manhattan at the Jacob Javits Convention Center. There is also a concurrent boat show for those carried in on stretchers. By spending an afternoon or, better, a whole day there, dosing on 10 brands of bikes, all kinds of gear, and gobs of motorcycle paraphernalia, even the worst cases of BP will disappear for a while. If you buy some stuff, you might even be symptom-free for up to a month.

A second, equally inexpensive treatment, involves planning a major motorcycle trip. Only have a week in the summer? Fine, that’s why they made the Adirondacks and Nova Scotia. But with more time (and money), dreams of places like Colorado or even Alaska sooth almost all symptoms of BP. This is because planning of this kind activates the brain’s reward center. According to Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University (a MacArthur Genius Award recipient), there is more dopamine released during the anticipatory phase of a cherished activity than there is in the actual doing of that activity. The best part here is that thorough planning can take months. Think of it: maybe months with no tremor.

At this point, treatments get more complicated and expensive, but they’re even more effective. Almost all of them are variants of a transplant procedure.

Have some miles? Then fly and rent. A rental bike costs big bucks, but real relief can be priceless. Places like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and San Diego are ideal. The weather is good, the roads and scenery are varied, and several kinds of bikes are available. I have had this treatment twice, in March, and I should have done it earlier. And, yes, there is also some anticipation, so the dopamine flows.

Yet another treatment is out there, but the costs are still higher. Have you paid off your mortgage? Got a tolerant spouse? Kids though college? Maybe you have a trust fund? Then the southern hemisphere is for you. Why let Olympic skiers have all the fun? They chase the snow all year. We can chase the sun and ice-free roads. After you’ve shoveled your driveway for the fifth time in February, let your mind wander to an organized motorcycle tour in South Africa or New Zealand. Careful, it could give you an aneurism, but just thinking about it causes a surge of dopamine (good for a week or so). Further, as with all travel, you can do it on your own, or with just a significant other. So you can skip the group tour and maybe save your house.

That’s exactly what is keeping me going about now. If things work out right, I would get another job for a while, stash the stuff in a jelly jar, and get out by the end of next February. New Zealand sounds just right - empty roads, two completely different islands, nice people, motorcycle-friendly sheep, and Kiwis. No more shaking. Who needs a house anyway?

Bob Engel lives in Marlboro with his motorcycles, wife and cat.