Monday 18 December 2017

Rude health: Facing fitness

Slapping your face won't protect against Spanish Flu, but a new craze has Maurice Gueret swotting up on muscles

So yesteryear: Close up of woman receiving botox injection in lips
So yesteryear: Close up of woman receiving botox injection in lips
Dr Maurice Gueret.

It must be 10 years since the world lost its mind about brain gyms. Do you remember them? All manner of Japanese gadgets and mini computer programmes were launched, promising to work-out the grey matter, tone up your neurones and ward off the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. I have yet to see the clinical data to back up the wild claims, but my hunch is that some folks in the hand-held computer business temporarily improved their mental health by raking in a lot of soft money. Peering through today's varifocals, I view a world just as demented as it ever was. Those of a wise vintage have put down their brain-gym contraptions and gone back to reading the death columns, completing easy crossword puzzles and failing their daily sudoku.

The latest craze on its way to Ireland is the 'face gym'. A fad that began at Selfridges London in 2014, now looks set for world domination. The blank expressions of Botox are so yesteryear. The new kid on the cosmetic-industry block is a firm finger massage of tired-looking mugs. The self-importance of face gym derives from adopting the terminology of high-performance leisure centres. There are warm-ups, cool-downs, pummelling, sets and reps. Workouts are followed by exercise regimes to follow up at home. There are even things called cardios, which involve being slapped quite hard by the masseur. All in the name of boosting blood circulation and laying down more collagen, if you believe in that sort of thing.

The theory goes something like this. If you feel the urge to work out muscles, then you should start on a part of the body which has the greatest concentration of them. Instead of pecs, biceps and glutes, the face gym works on muscles like levator labii superioris alaeque nasi (it raises the upper lip) and the corrigator supercilii (eyebrow wrinkler). Doctors aren't complaining at the prospect of new minor injuries at the surgery door. They'll be swotting up on zygomatic sprain, wrenched risorius and buccinator paralysis. I remember our old anatomy professor telling us that it takes 17 muscles to smile and 43 of them to frown. My three years in his department gave him the most marvellous workout. And I didn't charge a penny!

You might well wonder how doctors remember the names of the 640-odd muscles in the human body. The truthful answer is that they don't, with the exception of those who work full-time in teaching anatomy. But we have to know all their names and functions to get through medical school in the first place. That's where little medical mnemonics come into their own. The levator labii superioris alaeque nasi that I mentioned above is known as the Elvis Presley muscle, as it was this facial contractor that gave the crooner his trademark snarl. But merely to call it after a legendary singer will not get you through an anatomy exam. You must also know that this muscle gets well exercised by nocturnal snorers. And the way you remember the difficult name of this nasal muscle is to associate it with the beautiful acronym: Little Ladies Snore All Night.

You can barely move in bookshops these days with so much 1916 paraphernalia tumbling from the shelves. I have been dipping into some of the more academic offerings, and my favourite to date has been Neil Richardson's According To Their Lights, which is an extraordinarily well-researched and previously untold history of the many forgotten Irishmen who were serving in the British Army in Dublin during Easter week, 1916. There are even a few pages on my grandfather, who helped defend Trinity College during the uprising, and his brother, who took the rebel side of the gates. Over the next two years, I hope to hear a lot more about brave Irishmen at the Somme, Passchendaele and other far-flung, muddy battlefields.

I hope somebody is writing a book about the Spanish Flu of 1918 and the Irish experience. First reported in Belfast, there were perhaps 800,000 cases in Ireland, and more than 20,000 people perished. Things were particularly bleak in the November and December of that year. It was called the 'Black Flu', perhaps because those badly affected turned a purple colour if the disease progressed to septicaemia or blood poisoning. Cures were six-a-penny, but these were pre-antibiotic days, when there were few resources to tackle the complications.

Bottles of expensive Formamint lozenges were recommended by the Local Government Board as 'germ-killing throat tablets', but, looking at the ingredients today, I feel they may have done as much harm than good. I feel that the use of formaldehyde and its polymers in medicine is better suited to the sterilisation of catheters and scientific instruments, or the preservation of corpses. More popular remedies were hot milk, vinegar-soaked towels, and strong whiskey. It's unlikely there are any survivors of Spanish Flu alive in Ireland today, but if you have any interesting family stories about the epidemic, I'm all ears.

Final straw this week is a fascinating new study from GP surgeries in the UK which suggests that flu vaccine can be much more effective against some strains of the virus if received between 9am and 11am, rather than between 3pm and 5pm. Larger studies will be needed to confirm this, but if true and initial findings are correct, then it's good news for early birds, with a prediction that thousands more lives could be saved each year.

Dr Maurice Gueret is editor of the 'Irish Medical Directory'

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