Thursday, 21 February 2013

Medical myths

It's amazing what people will believe just because they've heard it so many times.  This applies even more to medical myths.  If something sounds plausible enough, people will not only believe it, but propagate it.  The worst part about this is that it is "medical" information that is being passed on from person to person, and because no one bothers to verify anything beyond a quick Wikipedia search, the misinformation spreads like a virus.  Pun intended.

So after a suggestion from reader Justyna, I've decided to compile a list of some of the more common medical myths in a stupid and useless attempt to dispell them.

MYTH: A woman's ovaries alternate releasing an egg each month.
FACT: Studies show that it's basically a 50/50 chance, which makes much more sense than the body somehow "remembering" which ovary released the egg last month.

MYTH: Going outside in a cold rain without a coat and/or hat will cause you to catch a cold.
FACT: Even my wife continues to propagate this one.  She knows full well that the reason people catch colds during cold weather season is because they are more common in cold weather season, not because the virus can somehow magically detect that its next victim forgot a hat.

MYTH: You lose most of your body heat through your head.  So put on a hat to stay warm!
FACT: This one sounds right - your head is the highest part of your body, and heat rises, right?  Wrong.  This information came from a misguided study of soldiers which found that they lost their body heat through their heads.  The problem with the study is that the soldiers' heads were the only part of their bodies that weren't covered.   Heat radiates out through every part of your body equally, so the head, which comprises about 9% of the body surface area, loses about 9% of the body heat. 

MYTH: You need to drink 8 glasses of water a day.
FACT: My mother said this so many times she may as well have tattooed it on my forehead.  The fact is if you're thirsty, you need to drink something.  If you aren't, you don't.

MYTH: Chewing gum takes 7 years to pass through your GI system.
COROLLARY: You have 7 pounds of undigested meat sitting in your GI system.
FACT: This one is just as true as "If you swallow a watermelon seed, a watermelon plant will grow in your stomach".  And many vegetarians tout the corollary as a reason not to eat meat.  This one is just pure and utter codswallop.  There is no ball of meat sitting in your intestine and causing cancer, and gum will simply pass through your system undigested, much like a coin.  Full stop.

MYTH: Eating turkey makes you tired because of the tryptophan.
FACT: No, no, and no.  Tryptophan is an amino acid found in all meat, and turkey is no exception.  However, even a supposed extra dose of tryptophan isn't enough to make you tired.  If you eat a huge meal, you'll get tired.  The turkey has nothing to do with it, so leave the poor turkeys alone.  If you don't believe me, the Mythbusters busted this one too.

MYTH: "We just have to get the bullet out and he'll be fine!"
FACT: I saw this one on TV just yesterday, and it drives me absolutely bonkers.  Think about it - if a bullet passes through the body, what do you think is more important: getting an inert slug out or, oh I don't know, fixing the holes that the bullet made as it went through stuff?  Every time I see a doctor on TV reaching in with pliers to pull out a bullet and breathing a huge sigh of relief as he pulls it out, I cringe.  Goddammit, ignore the bullet and fix the holes!!

MYTH: We only use 10% of our brains.
FACT: Well, I'm not exactly sure where this one came from, but if it were true, we'd all act like vegetables.

Of all the myths I've listed, the last one is definitely closest to the truth, at least for a majority of my patients, it seems.


  1. This post was hilarious! I love your sense of humor, Doc.

  2. That 'getting the bullet out' myth is everywhere. I don't understand, why won't anyone fix it?

    1. Seriously, I haven't ever seen a TV show where a person has been shot and they didn't just take the bullet out, except for "Inside Combat Rescue," which is a reality show.

    2. Pulling a bullet out is quick and simple to understand - perfect for Hollywood / TV.

      Viewers would get bored watching doctors plug holes with chewing gum or something...

  3. about "catching a cold": i recently stumbled over an article about a couple of scientists who wanted to put that phrase to the test and went to spend the winter in a small, isolated town on spitsbergen that gets iced in for a good portion of the year (if i recall correctly that took place some decades ago). you can't get much colder than that and still be on this planet.
    they found that soon after the town got iced in the cold infections subsided and all the residents were healthy for the whole long winter.
    as soon as it started to thaw though, and the first ship of the spring made it to the town, most of the towns population came down with a cold.

    if that doesn't make it obvious that "catching a cold" has nothing to do with being cold and all with viruses, i don't know what can.

  4. Doc, explain this one: Shaving the underarms may lead to breast cancer which is why it is more common in women due to more frequent shaving than men. Read it in a magazine but I'm still skeptical although their explanation sounds quite plausible (if I remember correctly they said something like shaving sometimes causes small cuts and all the chemical from deodorants/body shampoo may enter through these cuts and into the vein which flows to the breast hence accumulation of these "chemical" will eventually lead to cancer)

    1. I don't even have to be a doctor to tell you that that is pure unadulterated bull poopy.

    2. It is apparently widely circulated on the internet, many dispelled it as a myth but nonetheless I'm interested to know if there is any link whatsoever. On a side note, got this from a health web:

      Another substance of concern in antiperspirants is aluminum, which has also been found to have estrogen-like effects that may play a role in cancer.5 There is evidence that aluminum from antiperspirant is absorbed and present in breast tissue. Researchers have concluded:

      "We have confirmed the presence of aluminum in breast tissue and its possible regional distribution within the breast. Higher content of alumiium in the outer breast might be explained by this region’s closer proximity to the underarm where the highest density of application of antiperspirant could be assumed. There is evidence that skin is permeable to aluminum when applied as antiperspirant."

    3. There has been no definitive link between aluminum-containing antiperspirants or any of their ingredients and breast cancer. None. Since breast cancer is such a big issue, I'm sure there will be further research done, but as of now, I would certainly not advise against antiperspirant use.

  5. There is a corollary to the "going outside in the cold" myth: if you have just been exercising, approximately two hours later your immune system crashes because all the white blood cells are rushing to restore your muscles. Keeping your body warm keeps the muscle tissues warm and keeps your immune system stronger because not as many cells rush to them.

  6. Okay, this isn't really a medical myth, but I'm wondering anyway... In surgeries, do doctors really stuff as many paper towels as they can into a patient if that patient is bleeding heavily?

    1. Paper towels, no. As wiesoauchimmer said below, we use sterile cotton laparotomy pads. But for patients with uncontrolled bleeding, we absolutely do stuff as many of these laparotomy pads as possible in an attempt to tamponade the bleeding. They are only left in for 12-48 hours (depending on how the patient does). Then, if the patient has survived, the pads are removed.

    2. I didn't exactly mean PAPER towels. I just couldn't remember the actual term, so I kind of... "Freestyled" that one. I figured paper towels wouldn't be used, but my medical terms are kind of rusty and the few I learned in High School didn't include laparotomy pads anyway. That and the fact that in the shows I've seen so far... The pads kind of looked like paper towels, though that might be BECAUSE it WAS a TV show.
      Thank you for clearing that one up!

  7. i'm no doctor, so hopefully Doc can weigh in on the topic too, but logic tells me that you wouldn't want to put paper into a patient, especially as it will get soaked, because that causes paper to disintegrate and would likely leave little pieces behind. i suppose they use sterilized cotton fabric or something similar.

  8. You forgot the one that I think is the most common. Your blood is blue until it touches the oxygen in the air. -_-

  9. The myth that we only use 10% of our brains drives me insane when it is perpetuated. I've even refused to see movies that used it in the plot.
    As for where it originated, I would assume it is a misstatement of the phenomenon that we don't use 100% of our brain function AT THE SAME TIME. Every single area of our brain is not working every single second, that much is true. But to say that there are areas of our brain that we never use at all; that, my friends, is ludicrous. The very fact that anytime you learn something you're creating new pathways in your brain should be an indication that parts of our brain don't just sit useless in our heads.

  10. Well Doc, if swallowing a watermelon seed won't cause a watermelon to grow in your stomach, then how on earth did something similar happen to this man?

    (note: I am well aware of the germination process; I still find this story ridiculous)

  11. MYTH: You need to drink 8 glasses of water a day.

    Oh my god. Finally. I've been saying this my whole life! I get so tired of doctors telling me I need to drink 2 Litres of water every single day. Dude, I don't think I could drink ONE, unless it's a really hot day, and I'm out sweating something crazy!

    Just got the flu for the first time in 18 years... Ended up at the hospital with a heart rate of 155bpm, a fever of 39.4, and oxygen levels so low my fingers and toes were going numb...

    The first lovely doctor (he had an awesome scottish accent *swoon*) decided to put me on IV fluids, and see if they could slow down my heart... 2 litres of fluids (and many trips to the bathroom later - more fluid than usual + coughing = going more often to avoid an accident)

    The next doctor's shift started, and she (a gyno/obstetrician I had met before) decided that since I was going to the bathroom so often, that -must- mean I had a UTI (She's diagnosed this every time I'd met her in the ER, including the time I went back the next day and was diagnosed with ovarian cysts... I think she just likes UTI's), which was causing all of my problems.... And so pumped me full of IV antibiotics as well, and then sent me home, saying "Take some Panadol and Ibuprofen".

    Had no money for another 2 days, no panadol, and the panadol they had already given me was wearing off... Got home, got into bed with my quilt and 2 blankets, and half an hour later was shivering so hard I nearly collapsed several times on my way to the shower. 3 hours of soaking in water as hot as I could stand finally broke my fever. First UTI I've ever had that's caused coughing...


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