Monday, 30 November -0001

Your Health Dr James Le Fanu: 7 September

The unexpected symmetry of the body, intermittent leg pain after surgery, and the curative properties of honey…

Written by Dr James Le Fanu
The symmetry of the human body is very striking, with the left side being a precise mirror image of the right. There is however, no anatomical connection between them so the muscles, ligaments, bones and nerves of either side are quite independent of each other – this makes the following reader's experience rather puzzling.

She has been much troubled over the years by carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands, where pressure on the nerve causes numbness and tingling in the fingers – it can be relieved by a procedure such as a steroid injection or an operation.

My correspondent reports that, to her surprise, soon after her left hand was treated, her pain and numbness were relieved – and the symptoms in her right hand also disappeared. This, one might have thought, is most likely due to coincidence – were it not for another account of a similar 'sympathetic' response of one side of the body to treatment of the other.

This reader had severe eczema of both legs and her doctor wrapped one leg in a special bandage and suggested she return in a fortnight. 'But what about the other leg?' she asked. 'That will go right too,' he confidently asserted – and it did.

It is indeed curious but maybe no more so than the way that many skin and arthritic disorders symmetrically involve the same part of the body, or the same joints on both sides simultaneously – suggesting that they must somehow be linked.

There is a further instance of this in the phenomenon of 'referred' aches and pains – as described by a correspondent in the journal New Scientist, where scratching an itch on the right forearm produced a stabbing pain on the left side of the back: 'The more urgently I scratched the more intensely I felt the stabbing in my back.' This 'referred itch' has a name, Mitempfindung (from the German 'to sympathise with'), first described back in 1773 by the Reverend Stephen Hales, an English cleric and physiologist. Its mechanism remains unknown.

All this goes to show that current scientific concepts of how the body works are not as complete as commonly supposed.

This week's medical problem comes courtesy of a lady from Kent writing on behalf of her husband who, following a successful hip replacement a year ago, developed pain in his calves when walking, known as intermittent claudication.

This proved to be due to poor circulation caused by a blockage to the artery of the leg, which he was assured was not related to his operation. Contrary to the advice her husband received, blockage of the artery to the leg by thrombosis may occur, though thankfully very rarely, following a hip-replacement operation. The claudication is likely to improve with regular exercise that promotes the growth of new blood vessels around the obstruction. The drug Praxilene and natural gingko biloba can also help, though the effect of both is 'modest'. The best option is an angioplasty to dilate the narrow segment of the blood vessel, restoring circulation to the limbs.



Healing honey

The value of honey in the treatment of skin ulcers was first recorded by the Egyptians in 2000BC. Recently, a reader from Cornwall describes how it worked for her too. 'For six months I had some flaky skin on the top joint of my ring finger, which turned into a huge weeping sore when treated with hydrocortisone as recommended by the chemist. My doctor thought it might be sinister and referred me to a specialist. In the meantime, as my finger looked so awful, I covered it with a dressing on which I smeared some honey. Within two weeks it was completely clear and it has not returned.'

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