Your Health
Friday, 19 October 2012

YOUR HEALTH Dr James Le Fanu: 19 October

An ancient Celtic remedy for rheumatic disorders, the over-prescription of statins, and self-help for choking

Written by Dr James Le Fanu
The Hebrideans are a hardy lot, as I was reminded when an acquaintance described how his grandmother-in-law, much
afflicted by arthritis, treated her painful joints by completely stripping off and rolling naked in a bed of nettles. The Cornish are also familiar with this remedy – albeit in a slightly less drastic form – as a family doctor discovered when consulted by an 81-year-old man with increasing pain in his hips of such severity that he had difficulty walking up hills and riding his bicycle.

He duly sent him off for an X-ray, which showed signs of arthritis warranting treatment with the antiinflammatory drug ibuprofen. He saw no more of his patient for a couple of months, but when he returned to the surgery he reported that the medication 'had been of no help'. He had resorted instead to applying stinging nettles to his painful hips, which resulted in a remarkable improvement – he was now back on his bicycle covering up to 10 miles a day.

The nettle remedy may be well known in the Celtic fringe of the Hebrides and the principality of Cornwall but is unknown to medical science. Indeed, searching on one of those miracles of modern information technology that takes only a few seconds to scan more than a million scientific articles stretching back 30 years, revealed not a single reference to nettle therapy.

This phenomenon – where modern medicine operates in apparent ignorance of tried-and- tested traditional remedies – applies particularly to the treatment of rheumatological disorders.

It can be traced back to the discovery in the early 1950s of steroids and other potent antiinflammatory drugs, which then became the only scientifically respectable mode of treatment – with everything else being jettisoned. It is only recently, thanks to the resurgence in popularity of complementary medicine, that these more traditional approaches have been rediscovered.

This week's medical problem comes courtesy of a lady from Ipswich, who 18 months ago, was admitted to hospital with an episode of palpitations due to the rapid rhythm of the heart known as tachycardia. Luckily, that cured itself, but the heart specialist advised her to take a small daily dose of aspirin.

A fortnight later, when she visited her GP, he advised that she should also take the cholesterol-lowering drug simvastatin, as her level (seven) was 'too high'. Since then, she has been troubled by aches and pains in her legs and a general lack of
enthusiasm for anything. 'It could be old age,' she writes but she is wondering what she should do.

This lady's symptoms are almost certainly a side effect of the simvastatin, which, regrettably is much over-prescribed nowadays. For someone in their 70s, there is no harm in having a cholesterol level of seven: statins have never been shown to prolong life in women so she will feel a lot better by stopping them.

Heimlich Manoeuvre

Choking is a potential disaster, especially if there is no one on hand – as social scientist Marilyn Dover from Exeter discovered when eating bacon and egg. 'I swallowed a mouthful and realised there was not the tiniest particle of air going in or out of my windpipe,' she writes in the British Medical Journal. 'I sat with what felt like a brick in my throat, looking for a solution.' She opted for a DIY version of the Heimlich manoeuvre, which seeks to expel an obstruction with the rush of air generated by compressing the chest. 'I stood up, placed my clenched fist over my diaphragm and quickly bent over double while squeezing my chest with my elbows to expel the air in my lungs.' At the second attempt, much to her relief, 'the morsel of food popped out of my mouth'.

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