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Low-Back Pain: Causes, Care, and Consequences

Low-back problems are one of the most common reasons for visits to doctors’ offices and the most common cause of disability among persons under the age of forty five. Most of the time, acute low-back pain is the result of simple strain and is a self-limiting condition that will resolve in four to six weeks, with or without treatment. But since back pain can be a forerunner of disability or a symptom reflecting serious pathology, every effort should be made to seek appropriate care that is based on a definitive diagnosis. Failure of physicians to ease the concerns of back-pain patients by explaining their problem and advising them in the care of back pain often results in dissatisfied patients who may be attracted by the approach of alternative medicine practitioners who tout a spurious quick-cure treatment based on a dubious diagnosis. Misinformation provided by such practitioners may contribute to disability by allowing progression of disease or by exaggerating the seriousness of the problem in the mind of the patient. Thus, while back pain is rarely serious, it should always be carefully evaluated to reach an accurate diagnosis and to determine if specialized care is needed. Care should be taken to inform the patient in a positive manner─to avoid unnecessary surgery as well as inappropriate or unnecessary treatment.

Something to Consider When You have Back Pain

Almost everyone will experience acute low back pain at least once during a lifetime. Much of what must be done to care for a bad back must be done by you. It would certainly help to be well informed about the causes of back pain when seeking appropriate treatment.

It goes without saying that when incapacitating back pain occurs as a result of a serious accident or injury, you should seek emergency medical care. When back pain grows progressively worse, persists unrelieved for longer than a week, or is worsened by rest, you may need the services of a specialist. Back pain that occurs for no apparent reason and does not affect movement may be a symptom referred from an internal organ. Once a diagnosis has ruled out a serious problem and it has been established that you have nonspecific or uncomplicated mechanical-type back pain, self-help measures designed to relieve your symptoms and to protect and strengthen your back may be the only treatment needed. If there is no active pathological process and your back pain lasts three months or longer, you may have a “chronic” back problem that can lead to recurring back pain, requiring ongoing vigilance and self help.

Time is the most important part of treatment for uncomplicated back pain caused by injury. It’simportant, however, to be aware of red flags indicating that back pain might be the result of something more serious that a simple strain. In the absence of red flags, imaging studies or special testing might not be indicated during the first four weeks of low back symptoms. When a red flag is present, you should not delay in reporting your symptoms to your family physician.

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Posted in: Chiropractic, General, Science and Medicine

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How to Choose a Doctor

From an e-mail I received:

As a proponent of SBM, and a someone who places a high value on reason, logic and evidence, I would like to find a physician who shares this mindset.

He went on to ask how he could go about finding one.

Another correspondent was referred to a surgeon by her primary physician, and the surgeon inspired confidence until she started talking about using homeopathic arnica pills to improve healing post-op. How she could determine the technical competence of this surgeon? Was acceptance of homeopathy a reason to shed doubt on her judgment in other areas? Should she seek a second opinion?

I get a lot of inquiries about how to find a good doctor. I don’t have a good answer. I thought it might be useful to throw out some ideas that have occurred to me and hope that readers will have better ideas and will share their experiences about what has or hasn’t worked. (more…)

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When To See a Doctor

Two weeks ago I wrote about the demise of the traditional annual physical for healthy adults who have no symptoms.

The First Step: Identifying a Symptom

People who do have symptoms should see a doctor. They should have appropriate evaluations that may or may not include a partial or complete physical exam. One problem is that people may not be able to decide what qualifies as a significant symptom. Could the heartburn actually be a heart attack? Is the fatigue a normal result of exertion, or could it be a sign of something serious? Could my headache be a sign of brain tumor, or should I just take an aspirin? My spouse says I’ve been snoring more: could that be a sign of sleep apnea? What if I just “don’t feel right”?

This is a real dilemma, because minor transient symptoms are a normal part of life. Some of them are due to trivial conditions that spontaneously resolve; some are sensations due to the normal functioning of the body. Some people are more aware of these sensations than others. Paying attention to them tends to make them worse. Some people barely let these minor sensations intrude on conscious thought; others fixate on them and obsess about them. There is a spectrum of human reactions ranging from the stoic denier to the hypochondriac. (more…)

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Lessons from History of Medical Delusions

A brief reference on the web site The Quackometer recently drew my attention to a very short book (really more of a pamphlet, in the historical sense) by Dr. Worthington Hooker, Lessons from the History of Medical Delusions, which I thought might be of interest to readers of this blog. Though published in 1850, the book contains many eloquent observations that are just as relevant to understanding how pseudoscience and quackery persist and even flourish in what we otherwise assume to be an age of scientific medicine. The book is available online as a Google eBook, and relatively cheap printed facsimiles are available as well.

Dr. Hooker was a physician, a professor at Yale, and an outspoken critic of homeopathy in it’s early days. His critique of homeopathy still resonates today, and has long drawn the ire of Hahneman loyalists, such as this one who makes reference to Dr. Hooker’s, “periodical fulminations for the destruction of Homoeopathy that have appeared like locusts or cholera at certain dates.” Though Dr. Hooker wrote an entire book discussing homeopathy, Homeopathy: An Examination of its Doctrines and Evidences, he does spare a few words here for this less-than-venerated practice:

The error I have been illustrating is carried to an extreme by the Homeopathist. He attributes palpable results to doses of medicine which are so small that they cannot produce any perceptible effect except by miracle.

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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, General, History, Science and Medicine

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A Christmas Card from the SkepDoc

The holiday season is upon us. As a bit of a holiday from science-based writing, I thought I would offer some thoughts inspired by the season and not supported by any scientific evidence.

One of my friends refers to Christmas as “The Feast of St. Dyspepsia.” Holidays are indeed an occasion for over-indulging. People change their routine: they have time off work, they travel, spend too much money, go to parties, skip exercising, eat and drink things they ordinarily avoid, gain weight, and then suffer from post-holiday guilt.

Science and Mom both tell us we will be healthier if we eat our fruits and vegetables, exercise, avoid large quantities of alcohol, get enough rest, avoid stress, and control our weight. I would argue that if we follow that guidance most of the time, an occasional lapse is not likely to matter very much. And the pleasure we experience might even be good for our health.

Now for some heretical words.

Science isn’t everything. Health isn’t everything. Even truth isn’t everything. Humans find value in other things like music and mythology, things that bring great pleasure and help make life worth living.

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Lessons Learned

I just returned from a trip to Montreal where I spoke at the Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium, an annual event that David Gorski spoke at a year ago. My topic was “Puncturing the Acupuncture Myth” and the other speakers were Paul Offit, Edzard Ernst, and Bob Park. I was honored to be in such august company; and we were wined, dined, and cossetted: overall, an experience that will count among the high points of my career. In addition to speaking at the Symposium, I was interviewed on the radio; participated in a roundtable discussion with other doctors, scientists and journalists; and was invited to speak to a large freshman chemistry class at McGill University. I told the students a bit about how I came to be the SkepDoc and some of the things I’ve written about, with “Vitamin O” as an example, and I provided 3 “lessons I have learned” from my investigations that are general principles applicable to other fields:

  • Roosters don’t make the sun come up.
  • Never believe one study.
  • The SkepDoc’s Rule of Thumb: when encountering a new or questionable claim, always try to find out who disagrees and why.

My presentation was recorded and is available as a webcast. Scroll down to “2011/11/08 HallOffit” near the bottom and click on the appropriate symbol to the far right. That saves me having to write a post this week. I think SBM readers will find it pertinent to all we discuss here.

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Legislative Alchemy I: Naturopathy

Via the magic of “legislative alchemy,” state legislatures transform implausible and unproven diagnostic methods and treatments into perfectly legal health care practices.[1] Without the benefit of legislative alchemy, chiropractors, naturopaths, homeopaths, acupuncturists and other assorted putative healers would be vulnerable to charges of practicing medicine without a license and consumer fraud. Thus, they must seek either their own licensing system or exemption from licensing altogether.

Licensing bestows an undeserved air of legitimacy on “alternative” practitioners. Because a state’s authority to regulate health care lies in its inherent power to protect the public health, safety and welfare, the public understandably assumes licensing actually accomplishes this purpose. In fact, the opposite occurs. Any attempt to impose a science-based standard of health care becomes impossible when vitalism and similarly debunked notions of human functioning are enshrined into law.

Initial licensing is just a beginning. Once the beach head is established other benefits can follow, such as expansion of the scope of practice. If not granted in the initial legislation, “alternative” practitioners can return, seeking more goodies like self-regulation and mandatory insurance coverage.

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Posted in: General, Legal, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Virtual Colonoscopy Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that everyone aged 50-75 be screened for colon cancer with any one of three options: colonoscopy every 10 years, flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years, or fecal occult blood testing (FOBT) every year. Conventional colonoscopy is considered the “gold standard” since it allows for direct detection and biopsy of early cancers and removal of precancerous polyps. It involves passing a long colonoscope via the rectum through the full length of the colon and is also known as optical or visual colonoscopy. A newer and less invasive alternative, virtual colonoscopy or CT colonography, is being promoted by some as the test of choice. Others disagree. One area of controversy is that CTs frequently find “incidentalomas” that require further investigation. An article in the journal Radiology highlights this problem, describing “the clinical drama that follows screening or diagnostic tests.” (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, General

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The Believing Brain

A common question of skeptics and science-based thinkers is “How could anyone believe that?” People do believe some really weird things and even some obviously false things. The more basic question is how we form all our beliefs, whether false or true.

Michael Shermer’s book Why People Believe Weird Things has become a classic. Now he has a new book out: The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths It synthesizes 30 years of research into the question of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives.

Some of the content is repetitious for those of us who have read Shermer’s previous books and heard him speak, but the value of the new book is that it incorporates new research and it puts everything together in a handy package with a new focus.

Shermer says

I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe, but because I want to know. How can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true and what is actually true? The answer is science.

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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, General

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Cognitive Traps

In my recent review of Peter Palmieri’s book Suffer the Children I said I would later try to cover some of the many other important issues he brings up. One of the themes in the book is the process of critical thinking and the various cognitive traps doctors fall into. I will address some of them here. This is not meant to be systematic or comprehensive, but rather a miscellany of things to think about. Some of these overlap.

Diagnostic fetishes

Everything is attributed to a pet diagnosis. Palmieri gives the example of a colleague of his who thinks everything from septic shock to behavior disorders are due to low levels of HDL, which he treats with high doses of niacin. There is a tendency to widen the criteria so that any collection of symptoms can be seen as evidence of the condition. If the hole is big enough, pegs of any shape will fit through. Some doctors attribute everything to food allergies,  depression, environmental sensitivities,  hormone imbalances, and other favorite diagnoses.  CAM is notorious for claiming to have found the one true cause of all disease (subluxations, an imbalance of qi, etc.).

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