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6 Remarkable Medical Gadgets

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Martha Mason of Lattimore, North Carolina, recently passed away at the age of 71. What makes her obituary different than the thousands of others that appear in newspapers each day? It's the fact that she spent 60 of those 71 years in an iron lung, after a 1948 polio attack left her paralyzed from the neck down. Mason, who graduated from Wake Forest University in 1960, used a voice-recognition computer to chronicle her life story in the 1994 autobiography Breath: Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung. Technology gave her the option to use a portable ventilator many years ago, but Mason preferred the protection of the metal cylinder that had been home to her for so many years. She didn't like the idea of tubes in her throat, incisions into her body, or the frequent hospital visits that would accompany the "improvement." mental_floss invites you to peek into the history of the iron lung and five other medical gadgets and gizmos which have aided both doctors and patients over the last century.

1. The Iron Lung

Dr. Philip Drinker of the Harvard School of Public Health developed the first "thoracic cage" that used vacuum cleaner blowers to alternate between atmospheric and sub-atmospheric pressure to force a patient to breathe. The machine, known as a Drinker Respirator, was originally intended as a pediatric-ward device to assist premature babies born with under-developed lungs. But when the dreaded disease known as polio began to spread in the United States, doctors found a second use for the device. Polio frequently paralyzed patients' diaphragms, rendering them unable to breathe on their own. The Drinker Respirator was first used on a polio patient in 1928. Following its initial success, and with the disease affecting tens of thousands of Americans, demand quickly grew. The Warren Collins Corporation fine-tuned Drinker's design and mass-produced a similar device at a more affordable price; it was dubbed the Iron Lung. Cost and availability became pertinent factors in the early 1950s, when every American neighborhood seemed to have at least one polio patient in residence.

2. The Stethoscope

medinv2.jpgAs a young medical-school student in 19th-century Paris, Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laennec developed a knack for hearing and interpreting the different sounds made by the heart and lungs when he placed his ear on patients' chests. This method only worked if the patient was sufficiently slender, of course. One afternoon, Laennec saw some children playing with wooden boards. One tyke would scratch or tap softly on one end, while another put his ear on the other end of the board to hear the sound. Laennec went back to his office - presumably after removing a splinter from the tyke's ear - and constructed a long tube out of several pieces of rolled-up paper. By placing the end of the cylinder directly on a patient's chest or back, he discovered that he could hear sounds much more clearly than before. After experimenting with different materials and designs, he came up with the stethoscope. In 1819, the medical community began to recognize the use of the gadget as a valuable diagnostic tool.

3. The Blood Pressure Cuff

medinv3.jpgHuman blood pressure was first recorded in 1847 by Dr. Carl Ludwig. Unfortunately, his method required the insertion of a catheter into an artery; not the most convenient procedure. Eight years later, Karl Vierordt discovered that the arterial pulse could be measured non-invasively by wrapping an inflatable cuff tightly around the upper arm and slowly releasing the pressure. The device was subject to regular improvements over the years, and in 1896, Scipione Riva-Rocci devised the first modern sphygmomanometer. He attached the inflatable cuff to a mercury-filled manometer (a device that measures liquid pressure), which provided an accurate account of the force of the blood as the heart tried to pump it past the restricting cuff and into the arm.

4. The Internal Thermometer

medinv4.jpgDaniel Gabriel Fahrenheit developed the first mercury thermometer back in 1720. Before his invention, thermometers relied on a mixture of alcohol and water. Unfortunately, these were too susceptible to air pressure to be of much use. Fahrenheit discovered that not only did mercury expand at a more constant rate than alcohol (providing more accurate results), but it also allowed for readings at much higher and lower temperature extremes. When first used for medical purposes, the typical thermometer was over a foot long and had to be held in place for 20 minutes to accurately determine a patient's temperature. In 1866, British physician Sir Thomas Allbut invented a six-inch bulb thermometer that could record a temperature in only five minutes.

5. The X-Ray Machine

medinv5.jpgGerman physics professor Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen was experimenting with cathode rays in his laboratory in November 1895 when he noticed that certain objects in the room began to glow. The humble scientist wasn't quite sure what his findings meant, and his only comment at the time was "I have discovered something interesting, but I do not know whether or not my observations are correct." Roentgen continued his experiments, and a month later, he presented an X-ray of his wife's hand to the Wurzburg Physical-Medical Society. (He'd named his new technology with an X, a variable scientists use to represent an unknown factor.) Roentgen won a Nobel Prize for his discovery, and "X-ray-mania" became a fad, Doctors and scientists joined in to take endless "pictures" of human bone structure. Department stores even took X-rays of customers' feet to fit them with the best possible shoes. The dangers of the technology weren't discovered and addressed until the one-two punch of serious X-ray burns and widespread cancer began to affect Thomas Edison's assistant, Clarence Dally.

6. The Pacemaker

medinv6.jpgToronto surgeon Dr. Wilfred Bigelow spent years conducting extensive studies on the treatment of frostbite. In 1949, using techniques he had culled from his research, Bigelow demonstrated that "controlled hypothermia" could be used to slow down the rhythm of the human heart. This tactic would reduce blood flow in the human body, making certain procedures (like open-heart surgery) possible. The main problem with his technique was discovering a way to jump-start the heart if it slowed down too far or came to a complete stop. Luckily, doctor-cum-electrical-engineer John Hopps was in the midst of his own research, hoping to use radio frequencies to restore body temperature in hypothermia patients. During Hopps' experiments, he had discovered that the application of a gentle electrical charge could restart the heart without damaging its muscle tissue. Using Bigelow's technique to operate on the heart, in 1950, he implanted the first pacemaker into a human being.

Naturally, there are dozens of medical devices and procedures that we didn't cover in this article. Which ones have you always wondered about? Like who invented that torturous tongue depressor? Or the name of that shiny round thing that old-time TV doctors always wore on headbands? Or even why, despite a 1 p.m. appointment, you have to wait until 2:30 to see your GP? Please drop a comment, and perhaps we'll revisit this topic again. Thanks!

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Medicine
Scientists Are Working on a Way to Treat Eye Floaters With Lasers
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Even people with 20/20 eyesight should be familiar with this scenario: You're enjoying a clear view when a faint doodle shape drifts into your peripheral vision like an organism under a microscope. Floaters affect almost everyone, but there's currently no medically accepted, non-invasive way to treat them. Two doctors with Ophthalmic Consultants of Boston are working to change that. As IFLScience reports, the team believes that lasers may be the solution to bothersome eye squiggles.

As Chirag Shah and Jeffrey Heier write in their study in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology, lasers can be used to safely combat the underlying causes of floaters. Also known as muscae volitantes, Latin for “hovering flies,” the condition comes from physical debris leaking into your eyeball. The front of your eyes is filled with a liquid called vitreous humor, and when drops of that gelatinous substance break off from the whole, the bits cast shadows on your retinas that look like gray blobs. Because floaters literally float inside your eyes, trying to focus on one is almost impossible.

These spots aren't typically a problem for young people, but as you get older your vitreous humor becomes more watery, which increases the chance of it slipping out and clouding your vision. Retinal detachment and retinal tears are also rare but serious causes of symptomatic floaters.

Shah and Heier tested a new method of pinpointing and eliminating floaters with a YAG laser (a type of laser often used in cataract surgery) on 36 patients. An additional 16 test subjects were treated with a sham laser as a placebo. They found that 54 percent of the treated participants saw their floaters decrease over six months, compared to just 9 percent of the control group. So far, the procedure appears be safe and free of side effects, but researchers noted that more follow-up time is needed to determine if those results are long-term.

At the moment, people with symptomatic floaters can choose between surgery or living with the ailment for the rest of their lives. YAG laser treatment may one day offer a safe and easy alternative, but the researchers say they will need to expand the size of future studies before the treatment is ready to go public.

[h/t IFLScience]

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Bite Helper
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technology
New Gadget Claims to De-Itch Your Mosquito Bites
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Bite Helper

Summer can be an itchy time for anyone who wants to enjoy the outdoors. Mosquitos are everywhere, and some people are particularly susceptible to their bites and the itching that comes with them. A new product aims to stop the suffering. Bite Helper, reviewed by Mashable, is designed to stop your bites from itching.

Place the pen-like device over your swollen bite and it will begin to emit heat and vibrations designed to quell the itch. It’s meant to increase blood flow around the area to alleviate your pain, heating your skin up to 120°F for up to 45 seconds. It’s the size of a thin tube of sunscreen and is battery powered.

Most dermatologists advise applying cold to alleviate itching from insect bites, so the question is: Will heating up your skin really work? Bite Helper hasn’t been clinically tested, so it’s hard to say for certain how effective it would be. There has been some research to suggest that heat can help increase blood flow in general, but decrease histamine-induced blood flow in the skin (part of the body’s normal response to allergens) and reduce itching overall. In a German study of wasp, mosquito, and bee stings, concentrated heat led to a significant improvement in symptoms, though the researchers focused mostly on pain reduction rather than itching.

Bite Helper’s technique "seems like a legitimate claim" when it comes to localized itching, Tasuku Akiyama, who studies the mechanisms of itching at the University of Miami, tells Mental Floss. "The increase in the blood flow may increase the rate of elimination of itch mediator from the area." However, before that happens, the heat might also make the itch a little worse in the short-term, he cautions. This seems to be borne out by user experience: While Mashable's reviewer found that using the device didn’t hurt at all, his daughter found it too hot to bear for more than a few seconds.

If the device does in fact relieve itching, though, a few seconds of pain may be worth it.

Bite Helper is $25 on Amazon.

[h/t Mashable]

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