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9 Articles in Volume 13, Issue #5
Elvis Presley: Head Trauma, Autoimmunity, Pain, and Early Death
Traumatic Brain Injury: Treatment of Post-traumatic Headaches
Advances in Pharmacologic Pain Management of Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis
Integrative Treatment Approaches for Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis
How Changing Hydrocodone Scheduling Will Affect Pain Management
Editor's Memo: Interpreting Indications For Electromagnetic Therapy
Specimen Validity Testing
Can a Buprenorphine Transdermal System (Butrans) Be Used to Treat OUD?
Letters to the Editor: Testosterone, Ultra-high Dose Opioids

Elvis Presley: Head Trauma, Autoimmunity, Pain, and Early Death

Page 5 of 5

Elvis' manager, Colonel Thomas Parker, hoped his marriage to Priscilla would reduce his drug use, and it seemed to for a while. However, the drug use and bizarre behaviors apparently became so bad that she left him in 1971. In January 1973, Elvis Presley was booked for a month of shows in Las Vegas. The physicians at the Las Vegas Hilton where Elvis stayed supplied him with unlimited quantities of dextroamphetamine, diazepam, ethinamate, hydromorphone, and meperidine.14 He also started to inject opioids. Dosage with injectable drugs is hard to control, and on January 23, 1973, Elvis suffered his first overdose from injectable hydromorphone. His live-in girlfriend found him comatose in bed and almost not breathing. Fortunately, the hotel doctor brought in oxygen. After this event, he continued to abuse drugs. Elvis' girlfriend, Linda Thompson, reported that he took so many drugs he would fall asleep while chewing, and she claimed she "clawed food from Presley's windpipe" eight different times. His second drug overdose occurred on June 28, 1973, requiring Dr. Nick to revive him with stimulants.

There are two basic theories about why a person abuses a multiplicity of drugs. One is to achieve a euphoria or mind set to escape the rigors of boredom or a stressful life. The other is that some people are born with odd or strange feelings and sensations and take a wide variety of drugs to treat themselves. It is my experience that TBI patients take many drugs at random in an attempt to treat the many strange symptoms, feelings, and sensations that TBI may bring. Elvis seemed to have both reasons to take drugs at different times. Another factor in his drug use may be that he never had much of a chance to grow up and be a normal person. Before he was 21, he was famous, adored, sought after, and rich. An escape from reality by drug use is a common route for those who never "get a life."

Dr. Nick tried about every trick a doctor could do to control Elvis' drug use. He would find drugs in Elvis' house or on tours and destroy them. He tried to prescribe the least harmful drugs while keeping Elvis functional. He constantly substituted placebos. Dr. Nick, Priscilla, and friends repeatedly tried to get him to enter a chemical dependency treatment unit, but he always refused. Given the circumstance, I don't know what else his doctor could have done to help him. One thing is clear: his drug abuse led to falls, head trauma, and overdoses that damaged his brain. At the time he died, he was essentially non-functional and required constant nursing care.


This medical analysis has been done in great part to bring attention to TBI. I believe Elvis Presley clearly knew he was deathly ill, but didn't know why. In retrospect, I believe Elvis Presley was a classic case of cumulative head trauma, followed by an autoimmune inflammatory disorder. None of this was known or recognized in his day. I'm confident he would be pleased to know his predicament may help others, as he was a kind and generous person.23

Only recently has there been an understanding that TBI may cause bizarre behaviors such as reclusivity, obsessive-compulsive habits, paranoia, hostility, peculiar sex habits, poor hygiene, and drug use. It may also cause hypothalamic-pituitary dysfunction and trigger an autoimmune inflammatory process that may produce, over time, a multi-system disorder. The centralized pain syndrome of TBI may not only produce pain in the form of headaches but also spine, joint, and muscular pain. These patients are often misdiagnosed as having "fibromyalgia." Head trauma can be cumulative, meaning that each additional trauma adds to the risk and symptomatology. Drug overdoses, of which Presley had several, usually cause anoxia to the brain and may worsen the problem of brain dysfunction caused by trauma. All of this was on top of several genetic problems including hypertension, megacolon, cytochrome defects, and antitrypsin deficiency.

Thankfully, today patients with head trauma are now beginning to frequent pain practices. Elvis Presley certainly antagonized his condition with an atrocious diet, drug use, and lifestyle. However, a study of Elvis Presley's medical history is most instructive as to how TBI can lead to serious clinical conditions that can possibly be prevented and treated.

Credits and Materials Used

Most material, other than information directly derived from Elvis Presley's files and records, is from the detailed book,Down at the End of Lonely Street: The Life and Death of Elvis Presley, written by Peter Harry Brown and Pat Broeske. This work was written in 1997 and contains detailed information after years of investigation by these two authors.14 I contributed to the facts as I knew them, but knowledge of Presley's underlying medical condition was not known at the time. Partly due to my and others encouragement, Dr. George Nichopoulos gave an interview to Dennis Breo of the American Medical Association in 1986, which contains many of his medical thoughts about Elvis.17 The book,I Called Him Babe: Elvis Presley's Nurse Remembers, by Marion J. Cocke, was most insightful into his impaired condition and medical care as she was his main registered nurse in Memphis.23

This paper could not have been written without the direct assistance of Carol Shifflett, of Sewick, Pennsylvania, author ofMigraine Brains & Bodies: A Comprehensive Guide to Solving the Mystery of Your Migraines and Aikido Exercises for Teaching and Training. Carol is a true journalistic expert on head trauma and was able to help me sort out the medical mystery of
Elvis Presley.

Last updated on: June 14, 2017