8 Cures That Did More Harm Than Good

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iStock.com/powerofforever

No one likes to be sick or suffering. But in the course of trying to find new cures for medical problems, or perceived medical problems, we’ve stumbled more than a few times. Most of the time, treatments simply didn't work and were no more harmful than what they were meant to “cure.” Sometimes, though, the medicine was even worse than the condition itself.

1. RAW MEAT AND HOG FAT FOR A RABIES BITE

To his credit, Pliny the Elder discounted many purely magical folk cures in his Natural Histories (not to mention writing entire chapters against the eating of infant brains). He was also a proponent of several treatments which we now know to have some merit, such as aloe vera to dress burns.

Still, his advice was often more questionable than credible. His cures for bites from a mad (rabid) human or dog were the same—raw veal or she-goat dung placed over the wound for no less than four days, while the patient takes only lime and hog’s fat internally. If this doesn’t sound so bad, imagine eating nothing but antacids and lard, while having an open wound get more and more infected. If you weren’t dead by the time the rabies actually manifested, you probably wished you were.

2. SMACKING A BIBLE ON A GANGLION CYST

Hit them with a book. A heavy book. The use of Bibles to cure ganglion cysts provided the colloquial terms for this benign lump on the hand or wrist: Bible cysts, Gideon’s disease, or Bible bumps.

Really, you shouldn’t do this, however. While in some circumstances the lump may disappear or be reabsorbed after being thwacked, this method of treatment is second only to puncturing them in an unsterile environment when it comes to causing recurrence and complications. Most ganglion cysts cause no complications on their own, and many will disappear after a few months if left alone [PDF].

3. WHIPPING FOR "DRAPETOMANIA" OR "DYSAETHESIA AETHIOPICA"

Drapetomania and dysaethesia aethiopica were two different but related “conditions” that one Samuel Cartwright saw as prevalent among slaves during the mid-19th century. Drapetomania supposedly caused an “insanity” that drove slaves to run away, while dysaethesia aethiopica caused “partial numbness of the skin,” and “great hebetude” (mental dullness and lethargy).

To cure either condition, you needed only to whip the patient. The concept caught on in the South, as it lent an air of science and self-justification to slave owners—Cartwright’s work suggested that the only moral thing to do was to keep slaves in their place for their own good, lest they become afflicted with one of these conditions (he noted how “common” dysaethesia aethiopica was among “Free Negros”). Of course, this quackery was not hard to spot by his contemporaries outside of the South. Frederick Douglass once sarcastically remarked that, since white indentured servants run away, too, “drapetomania” was probably a European condition that had been introduced to Africans by white slave traders.

4. SMOKING FOR ASTHMA

Smoke a cigarette! Not a tobacco cigarette (though those were advertised as “healthy” for decades), but an herbal remedy. While a few components of these cigarettes may have caused a degree of temporary relief for those with bronchitis or asthma, the long-term effects of smoking anything are known to be detrimental, especially to those whose lungs are already diseased. 

Long-term effects aside, many of the “asthma cigarettes” contained ingredients that were immediately and seriously harmful. Several brands boasted adding arsenic to their papers. Two of the staple ingredients for many companies were stramonium, an extract from the deadly Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) plant, and belladonna, extracted from deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna).

5. HEROIN TO CURE A MORPHINE HABIT

“Morphinism,” or morphine addiction, was perceived to be such a pervasive habit, and seen as such a scourge in polite society, that quack cures and treatments were easy to convince people to try, and rarely got reported or noticed when they didn’t work.

While unlabeled patent medicines in the U.S. were forced to reveal their ingredients after the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, many dangerous concoctions were still sold and advertised falsely. The tale of Bayer’s Heroin being used to “cure” morphine addiction (with a much more addictive and refined opiate) is pretty well-known, but it never caught on as much as Habitina (also known as Morphina-Cura) did. Habitina became known for its paid testimonials and dodgy advertising claims (“Non-Addictive! Cures the morphine habit!”), and was one of the most significant examples of the shortcomings of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Habitina not only didn't give the patient a cure, it combined the worst sides of the pharmaceutical industry into one bottle—its main ingredients were morphine sulfate (does it count as a cure if you call the same drug by a different name?), heroin, and caffeine.

6. RADIUM TO PREVENT INSANITY AND OLD AGE

“The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off” has to be one of the best Wall Street Journal headlines of all time. The “radium water” in question was called Radithor, and the jaw in question belonged to one Eben Byers: industrialist, socialite, and amateur golf champion.

Radium and radiation were all the rage around the turn of the 20th century. People who went to natural hot springs seemed “invigorated and renewed,” and scientists noted that many of these natural springs were high in naturally-occurring radon. The radon seemed to be to water what oxygen was to air; without it, water was “dead.” Looking to profit off of this discovery, companies first bottled water directly from the springs, and later produced “invigorating” crocks (containing internal radon discs or coatings) to irradiate water. Just fill the crock before you go to sleep, and have healthy, stimulating water all day long!

Unfortunately for those who consumed the radon, the radiation in the water did the opposite of what it was supposed to do. Eben Byers bought into the claims, and drank three bottles of Radithor a day, beginning in 1930. In 1932, his teeth began to fall out, holes began to appear in his jaw, and he became generally unwell. He was dying of aggressive cancer brought on by the radon (not radiation poisoning, as is commonly believed, but still directly attributable to the Radithor). He died at age 51 and was buried in a lead-lined coffin. His was one of the cases used to substantially increase the FDA’s ability to regulate medical claims, when the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act passed.

7. GOAT GLANDS TO CURE IMPOTENCE

Some people will do anything to get their “potency” back, and there are plenty of people out there who are willing to take advantage of that. John R. Brinkley was one of the myriad snake-oil salesmen at the turn of the century, but a medical degree bought from a diploma mill led the now-“Dr.” Brinkley to pursue grander matters.

Early on in Brinkley’s career, Bill Stittsworth, a farmer with “no lead in his pencil, no powder in his pistol” consulted him. The story goes that Brinkley jokingly remarked that it was too bad the farmer didn’t have the glands of the frisky billy goats outside, but Stittsworth, taking Brinkley seriously, said “Doctor, I want you to transplant [the goat glands] into me.” The doctor did as much, and nine months later, Bill Stittsworth’s wife reportedly bore a son, appropriately named “Billy.”

Seeing the potential to profit from this venture, John Brinkley set up a major advertising campaign centered on “Billy,” and “goat-gland transplantation” took off. Over 16,000 men had their scrotums cut open and tissue plugs from the goat testicles inserted. In the best-case scenario, the men’s bodies simply broke down the goat tissues and healed up, but many patients weren’t so lucky.

The fact that Brinkley was a mediocre medical man at best led to dozens of deaths that were directly attributable to his operation, but hundreds more are believed to have been killed by infection, gangrene, or surgical mishaps. Those deaths also helped lead to the revocation of Brinkley’s license to practice medicine in Kansas in 1930. Unfortunately for the easily swayed, he remained in the goat-gland business for another decade in Texas.

8. THALIDOMIDE TO CURE MORNING SICKNESS AND SLEEPLESSNESS

The 1950s were an era of innovation, new discoveries, and excitement about the potential that science had to improve our lives. Drug companies were thriving on this outlook, and developing cures for even the smallest of ailments. Sleeplessness was a major problem, according to contemporary doctors, but the only reliable sedatives were barbiturates, which had a host of known addiction problems and side effects.

In 1957, the German drug company Grunenthal developed a non-barbiturate, non-habit-forming sleep aid called Thalidomide. It was sold over the counter, and touted as “safe for everyone.” Grunenthal’s adverts boasted that they could not find a dose high enough to kill a rat. By 1960, its sales in Europe and the Commonwealth countries nearly matched that of aspirin. Down in Australia, Dr. William McBride noticed that women who took the drug were often alleviated of their morning sickness, and sales boomed even higher.

It was too good to be true. By 1961, babies were beginning to be born to mothers who had taken Thalidomide in early pregnancy. Many of them had shortened or absent “flipper” limbs. Dr. McBride realized his mistake, and did everything he could to retract his endorsements of the drug, but it was too late for over 12,000 infants. By 1961, the drug was pulled off the market, but Grunenthal offered no recompense or statement regarding its inadequate testing and irresponsible promotion.

Interestingly, the story of Thalidomide had a rather different turn in the United States. Though it technically passed the requirements of the FDA testing authority at the time, FDA inspector Frances Kelsey would not approve its distribution. Ms. Kelsey felt the company provided insufficient data on the efficacy and safety of the drug on its applications, and despite pressure from pharmaceutical companies and other FDA supervisors, she refused to budge on the issue. President John F. Kennedy eventually heralded her as a heroine, after the scandal of the “Thalidomide babies” broke overseas.

This incident further strengthened the testing requirements of the FDA, and greatly increased the oversight and regulation of equivalent organizations in other countries. Interestingly, Thalidomide is once again being used as a drug, albeit with extreme restrictions on who can take it. It’s a chemotherapeutic agent that has significant benefits for multiple myeloma patients, and it has also been used in the treatment of Hansen’s disease (leprosy). Patients on the drug must have pregnancy tests and use reliable contraception if they are sexually active, and must not become pregnant within 4 weeks of coming off the drug.

This story first ran in 2013.

10 Facts About Hepatitis

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iStock.com/Hailshadow

Even if you've been vaccinated against it, you may have a lot of unanswered questions about hepatitis. The condition, which is characterized by inflamed liver tissue, can be caused by a variety of factors, including viruses, an overactive immune system, and alcohol abuse. Hepatitis symptoms also vary widely, from a flu-like feeling that clears up in a few weeks to liver failure. Here are some facts worth knowing about every type of hepatitis—including the most common types, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

1. There are five types of viral hepatitis.

Every case of hepatitis is characterized by inflammation of the liver tissue. When looking at viral hepatitis specifically, the treatments, modes of transmission, and duration of symptoms vary from according to which virus strain is causing it. Hepatitis A is an acute illness that often goes away on its own over time. It spreads primarily via the oral-fecal route, usually when someone ingests food or water contaminated with the hepatitis A virus. The second type, hepatitis B, can be either acute or chronic, and it spreads through bodily fluids like blood and semen. Hepatitis C mainly spreads through blood and is most likely to develop into a chronic condition.

The fourth and fifth types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis D and E, though they aren’t talked about much in the U.S. Like hepatitis A, hepatitis E is mostly spread through oral-fecal contamination. Hepatitis D can only be contracted if the patient has already had hepatitis B. Both types are less common in the U.S. compared to countries that lack access to clean drinking water.

2. Non-viral hepatitis can be caused by alcohol and other factors.

Catching a virus isn’t the only way to contract hepatitis. Even if you’re up-to-date on your shots and practice good hygiene, you can get it from exposure to toxic chemicals, taking prescriptions or over-the-counter-drugs, or abusing alcohol. All of these conditions are known as toxic hepatitis. There’s also autoimmune hepatitis, which occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the liver and treats it like a hostile invader. Doctors aren’t entirely sure why this happens, but it’s more common in people with a history of infections or other immune diseases.

3. Chronic hepatitis may not show any symptoms.

Chronic hepatitis is diagnosed when the condition lasts longer than six months. Sometimes it develops following a bout of acute hepatitis, but more often it’s asymptomatic. Vague signs of this form of hepatitis may include malaise, fatigue, and nonspecific upper abdominal discomfort. It’s under-diagnosed, but if patients suspect they have hepatitis symptoms, they can get a liver function test, a viral serologic test, or other blood work done to confirm it’s there.

4. Yellow eyes and skin are common symptoms of acute hepatitis.

Unlike chronic hepatitis, acute hepatitis quickly presents clear signs. These include pale stool, dark urine, fatigue, loss of appetite, and flu-like symptoms. One of the tell-tale symptoms of hepatitis is jaundice, which is characterized by yellowish skin or eyes. This occurs when bilirubin, an orange-colored waste material produced by the normal breakdown of red blood cells, builds up in the blood because the liver isn’t functioning properly.

5. Some types of hepatitis can be prevented with vaccines.

Hepatitis types A and B can both be protected against with vaccines. The hepatitis A vaccine is administered in two doses six to 18 months apart and the hepatitis vaccine is doled out in three shots over six months. Cases of hepatitis B in the U.S. have dropped by as much as 73 percent since the vaccine was first introduced in the 1980s and hepatitis A cases have declined by 95 percent in the same time period.

6. There's no vaccine for Hepatitis C—but doctors are working on it.

Hepatitis C is the most common form of viral hepatitis, but there's still no vaccine for it. Scientists have identified at least six genetically distinct types of the virus, and about 50 different subtypes. This makes it difficult to develop a one-size-fits-all vaccine for hepatitis C, but medical experts have been working on one since the disease was first detected 25 years ago.

7. Some types of hepatitis can be cured.

There’s no specific therapy for hepatitis A once you contract it, but treating it is simple: With plenty of bed rest and hydration, the symptoms should clear up on their own within a few weeks or months. Hepatitis B, on the other hand, has a cure. Pegylated interferon-alphaA, a weekly shot administered over six months, eradicates hepatitis B in 25 percent of people. When it doesn’t work, patients can take oral medications, like amivudine and adefovir, that suppress symptoms. People with hepatitis C can take a combination of pegylated interferon and ribavirin tablets to recover from the condition, but this treatment doesn’t always work and can cause harsh side effects that are hard for some patients to tolerate.

In people with non-viral hepatitis, avoiding the cause—whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or toxic chemicals in their environment—is the first and most important step toward protecting their liver. Patients with autoimmune hepatitis may need to take drugs like Prednisone that lower their immune activity. If chronic hepatitis has gone untreated for a long time and the liver is severely damaged, a liver transplant may be the only option.

8. Long-term effects of hepatitis can be deadly.

If left untreated for too long, chronic hepatitis can have severe health effects. Even when symptoms aren’t immediately apparent, hepatitis takes its toll on the liver. One of the more dire outcomes of this condition is cirrhosis, a deadly liver disease that occurs when scar tissue starts to overtake healthy tissue inside the liver. This stops the liver from functioning properly and can lead to gallstones, swelling of the legs and feet, increased blood pressure, chronic bruising and bleeding, and poisoning of the brain. Liver cancer is another potential long-term side effect of chronic hepatitis.

9. Baby boomers are more likely than other age groups to have hepatitis C.

Baby boomers, a.k.a. people born between 1945 and 1965, are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than the rest of the population [PDF]. Transmission of hepatitis C reached its peak in the 1960s through the 1980s, before regular screenings for the virus became common, which is when most Boomers living with the disease today likely contracted it. Health experts recommend that everyone in this age group be tested for hepatitis C even if they don’t exhibit symptoms.

10. Viral hepatitis kills more people than malaria.

There are more than 325 million people around the world living with viral hepatitis today—that’s roughly equivalent to 4 percent of Earth's population. Every year, the disease leads to 1.34 million fatalities, which makes it deadlier than HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria. While the death rates associated with those diseases are on the decline, deaths caused by viral hepatitis increased 22 percent between 2000 and 2015. In 2017, Charles Gore, then president of the World Hepatitis Alliance, said the spike can be blamed on a lack of funding and prioritization of hepatitis compared to other global health threats. Lack of awareness is also a problem: Just 5 percent of people with viral hepatitis realize they have it.

8 Scientific Benefits of Napping

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iStock

Even on the best of days, life can be exhausting. If you find your energy flagging in the middle of the day, you might like to know that 34 percent of Americans nap. Napping is a healthy way to restore the deficits of sleep deprivation. Whether you bow down to the ritual of a mid-afternoon siesta or never stop to snooze, you may think twice about the power of napping after reading about these eight benefits—just in time for National Nappy Day.

1. Napping can boost your immune system.

Sleep deprivation—particularly repeated, chronic lack of sleep—takes a toll on your neuroendocrine and immune functions by increasing inflammatory molecules known as cytokines, as well as stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine. A 2015 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism took 11 healthy young men and restricted them to a night of only two hours of sleep. Blood and urine tests measured higher cytokines and levels of norepinephrine in both groups after sleep deprivation. The following day, one group was given two half-hour naps, while the control group did not have any naps. Blood and urine samples of those who napped showed that their cytokines and norepinephrine levels had returned to normal, as though they had never lost a night of sleep.

2. A nap can improve night alertness.

For people who work at night, or through the night, several studies have shown that naps from between 30 minutes and four hours long that are taken in advance of the shift—what's known as a "prophylactic nap"—improve performance and alertness. These naps can also improve nighttime driving alertness on the way home from the shift. However, most of these studies also include the administration of caffeine, which likely contributed. Yet a 1995 study in Sleep, which compared naps and caffeine, found that "naps, in general, provided longer and less graded changes in performance, mood and alertness than did caffeine, which displayed peak effectiveness and loss of effect within about six hours."

3. Naps + caffeine are a one-two punch against sleepiness. Just ask a surgeon!

Surgeons must often perform continuous surgery for hours longer than the average person would ever have to persist at a task. A 1994 study in the journal Ergonomics found that naps were indeed effective at keeping surgeons who had to remain awake for 24 hours alert, but only when caffeine was administered, too. Neither naps or caffeine alone were sufficient.

4. Frequent naps can improve daytime alertness.

Daytime napping also appears to improve mental alertness and performance, according to a number of laboratory studies. However, researchers found that shorter naps were more effective than longer ones. The most effective time of them all was 10 minutes, which produced the best outcomes in all sleep measures including "subjective sleepiness, fatigue, vigor, and cognitive performance." A 30-minute nap could produce the same effects but brought about "a period of impaired alertness."

5. Naps can help you learn new skills.

If you want to get better at learning a new skill, you might want to take more frequent naps. A 2006 study in Biological Physiology broke participants into two groups: those who napped frequently and those who napped sporadically. Each group was given a nap before a reading task. Habitual nappers—people who reported napping frequently—did better on the reading and retention task. Researchers determined that the brains of habitual nappers consolidated motor learning better, which is part of the process of learning a new skill.

6. Napping can improve your physical stamina.

It turns out that napping is not only just good for mental processes, but has a positive impact on physical stamina and performance as well. A 2007 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences put 10 healthy men through a series of sprints before and after a 30-minute, post-lunch nap. Sprint times improved after the naps, suggesting to the researchers that a post-lunch nap "improves alertness and aspects of mental and physical performance following partial sleep loss." They suggest that napping may be an important part of the regimens of athletes who are undergoing restricted sleep during training or competition.

7. Want to improve your memory? Take a nap!

One of the many functions of regular nighttime sleep is to consolidate memory. A 2010 study in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory set out to see whether daytime naps also improve memory processes, particularly associative memory (the ability to make connections between unrelated objects). Thirty-one healthy participants were given a learning task at 12 p.m. to memorize two sets of face-object photograph pairs. The objects in each pair occurred in both sets but were paired with different faces. Participants were broken into two groups: those who had a 90-minute daytime nap or those who did not. At 4:30 p.m., participants who napped showed notably better retention of associative memory.

8. A 90-minute nap is as good as a full night's sleep for perceptual learning.

Previous research demonstrated that people perform better on a visual texture-distinguishing task after a night of sleep than they do immediately after learning it. A 2003 study in Nature Neuroscience found that people performed just as well on the test after a 60- to 90-minute nap as they did after a full night of slumber.

"What's amazing is that in a 90-minute nap, you can get the same [learning] benefits as an eight-hour sleep period," lead author Sarah Mednick said in an interview with the American Psychological Association. "The nap is having an additive benefit on top of a good night of sleep."

This article originally ran in 2017.

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