Thursday 14 December 2017

Rude health... summer scares

His new T-shirt manages moisture, fights bugs and prevents cancer, but Maurice Gueret is left cold by skinny jeans

Scare: Skinny jeans
Scare: Skinny jeans
Dr Maurice Gueret

With the recent balmy summer weather, I made a prudent investment in a new T-shirt. Size, roominess and an ability to swing a club are key ingredients when I do my clothes shopping.

Matters of hue and style are left to the long-suffering cave coordinator. If the fit is good, I am trusted to surgically excise the paper tag, but I usually get distracted by the sartorial blurb. This was no ordinary XXL T-shirt. My new chest covering has "moisture management technology that creates inherent performance qualities". It uses a newly trademarked technology to move moisture away from the skin rapidly, dries quickly and also guarantees antibacterial protection. This bug-battling phenomenon means I can continue to wear my T-shirt right through the winter, and laugh at folks who say I'll catch pneumonia. And, as if this wasn't enough, my garment also offers protection against ultraviolet radiation of  UPF 15, which I assume means up to factor 15. Which is all very well. Except that skin cancer has a nasty habit of favouring exposed areas rather that those under cover of clothing. As the careless use of 'healthy benefits' lingo continues to infect all aspects of everyday life, we shouldn't be surprised if nobody listens to anything any more.

Health scares

Daily health scares that our media feasts on are ignored by most doctors. Far too many of them originate in the bowels of public-relations folk rather than in the grey matter of half-educated medics. Editors like to link an old story with a new fad. One of my favourite scares this summer has been the 'skinny jeans' one, where it was reported that a 35-year-old Australian lady passed out and had to have her jeans cut off in hospital as they couldn't be removed any other way. Her case was written up in a neurology journal, and the world and its mother heard the story about how she spent a day squatting, emptying out cupboards, as she helped a friend to move house. Later, she collapsed with swollen calves and dropped feet, but wasn't discovered for some hours. After 'scissor therapy', rehydration and a few days in hospital with her feet up, the constricted lady recovered. Her official diagnosis, which sounds worse than it is, was rhabdomyolysis (mushy muscles) and bilateral peroneal and tibial neuropathies (trapped nerves). In the sunny days before anybody ever heard of skinny jeans, we doctors called it strawberry picker's palsy.

Heart action

Women always figure disproportionately in health scare stories and male doctors are often to blame. The late Professor Skrabanek in Trinity College collected many such examples. He recalled how, in 1901, a Dr Joseph Price attributed a rise in appendicitis among women to "golf, cricket, the bicycle and other outdoor sports". A Dr H Macnaughton Jones said that cycling in women caused "irregularity of the heart action", and, perhaps even more seriously, suggested that one particular saddle with a falcon pommel "may prove to be a serious source of sexual excitation". Not to be outdone, a Dr JW Ballantyne added goitre, dilated heart, dementia, and hysterical seizures to the list of catastrophes waiting around each corner for cycling ladies.

Merchant navy

Readers send me some great tales of various cures from home and abroad. I do read them all avidly, but don't get around to covering them all here, or replying by letter. Thomas was in the Merchant Navy during the 1950s and vividly recalls being anchored once off the coast of Mumbai (then called Bombay) in India. His boat was waiting for a berth to come up and, as was usual in such places, a flotilla of small entrepreneurs, barbers and fortune tellers rowed out to their vessel offering services for cash. The salvation for Thomas that night was a 'corn remover' with a very high-tech procedure. His painful corn was first massaged with saliva for about five minutes. Then the 'chiropodist' took an ordinary blue plastic Biro cap that was open at both ends and placed it over the corn. He then sucked on the tube to create a vacuum and sealed the open end with his teeth. This created a leech-like situation and the biro cap was left sticking hard to the skin. Five minutes later, the vacuum was broken and the corn had miraculously moved into the tube, dripping blood, with lots of tiny roots visible. Thomas still gets the odd troublesome corn and sometimes wishes he was back in Bombay.

Cancer of the gullet

New UK figures reveal a worrying increase in cancer of the oesophagus (gullet) in men. In the 1980s, they used to see 50 new cases a week, but this number has now doubled to 100. The disease is also rising in women, but the incidence is lower and the climb is less steep. The annual Lollipop Day here does a lot to raise awareness about symptoms, and champion golfer Padraig Harrington has done good work too in memory of his father, who died from this disease. It's a cancer that is eminently treatable, but it needs to be diagnosed and caught early. The website gives a good rundown of possible early warning symptoms. My own advice is that any difficulty in swallowing, either of food or liquids, always demands immediate evaluation with a scoping camera. Be wary too of any upper-digestive discomfort out of the ordinary. Simply don't accept appointments that are months away. Too many cancers in Ireland still fall at the referral hurdle, Padraig Harrington Padraig Harrington and if same-day assessment is good enough for all breast lumps, then it needs to become the norm for all potentially serious symptoms in healthcare.

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

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