Posts by Daniel Pendick
Opioid painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone offer blessed relief from pain. But the body gets used to them, requiring ever-higher doses. They are also addictive, cause side effects, and can kill. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine says prescription painkiller abuse accounts for about 17,000 deaths a year. Doctors are learning to say no to opioids, but have limited scientific guidance on when and how to best use them for chronic pain. Ideally, these drugs should prescribed for the shortest time possible and, if pain persists, a transition made to a non-addictive form of pain control. This may be other medications or specialized counseling from a pain specialist that might include complementary and alternative treatments, like acupuncture and meditation.
Smartphones and tablets combine an extraordinary amount of portable computing power with connectivity to the world via cell phone signal and WiFi. Many health entrepreneurs are trying to harness that power to help people to get healthier. But do they work? A study published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine on one popular weight-loss app finds that the answer is “not so much.” University of California, Los Angeles researchers tested one free app called MyFitnessPal. Overweight women who used it lost about five pounds over six months—but so did women who didn’t use the app. In spite of the app’s poor showing in the UCLA trial, MyFitnessPal and other health apps can be useful tools for people who want to manage their weight and lifestyle. But it takes two things from the user—motivation to make a change and using the app enough to produce the desired effect.
More and more experts now recommend that people with high blood pressure regularly check their blood pressure at home. Doing this gives people an idea where their blood pressure stands in between office visits, and can motivate them to care more about their health. It also helps doctors make quick medication adjustments to keep blood pressure in the healthy zone. But according to a new study, up to 15% of home blood pressure monitors as accurate as they should be. Readings can be off by as much as 20 points. If you check your blood pressure at home, bring your monitor and cuff to your doctor’s office and compare the reading you get with the doctor’s known, accurate instrument.
A report published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association offers weak-to-no proof that acupuncture helps ease the pain of knee arthritis. In a group of older men and women with arthritis-related knee pain, Australian researchers compared traditional needle acupuncture against laser acupuncture, sham laser acupuncture, and no treatment. People who had needle or laser acupuncture reported slightly less pain and slightly better physical function compared with the group that had no treatment at all. Sham acupuncture worked as well as real acupuncture, suggesting the placebo effect may be at work.
A heart attack in progress is a medical emergency. The leading way to stop it is with artery-opening angioplasty. But many angioplasties are done for reasons other than heart attack. Some are performed to ease chest pain that appears with physical activity or stress. This is the chest pain known as stable angina. Sometimes the prospective patient has no symptoms at all — just test results that indicate one or more clogged arteries. Cardiologists continuously debate when it’s appropriate to do non-emergency angioplasty. Two studies in JAMA Internal Medicine add some provocative new information: that incomplete or even misleading advice from doctors contributes to unnecessary angioplasties. And that’s a problem because angioplasty can harm as well as help.
Marathoners are the thoroughbreds of high-performance runners, but even the draft horses of the running world — slow and steady joggers — improve their health. A study out this week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology finds that even five to 10 minutes a day of low-intensity running is enough to extend life by several years, compared with not running at all. It shows that the minimal healthy “dose” of exercise is smaller than many people might assume. But if your favorite activity is a brisk walk in the park or a quick game of tennis, the research has implications for you, too. If you don’t currently exercise and make the decision to start — whether it’s walking, jogging, cycling, or an elliptical machine — you are going to improve your health.
With all the warnings against soaking up too much sun, getting ready to go outside can feel like you need a checklist like astronauts use when suiting up for a 6-hour spacewalk in the full blast of the sun’s radiation. Putting on sunscreen and following other sun-smart strategies is for a good cause: preventing melanoma—the most dangerous kind of skin cancer. Curiously, doctors tend not to talk about sunscreen use with their patients. One study showed that, in 18 billion outpatient visits, primary care doctors mentioned sunscreen to just 0.07% of their patients, or roughly 1 in 1,400. But even though your doctor may not mention it, you know better: Put on a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 before you go out. Reapply every two to three hours, or more if you are in the water or sweating. Wear a wide-brimmed hat or sun-protective clothing.
A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine this week found that men who used the erection-enhancing drug sildenafil (Viagra) were 84% more likely to develop melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, over a period of 10 years. That finding makes for an attention-grabbing headline. But it doesn’t tell the real story—that the study found an association (not cause and effect), that this hasn’t been seen in other studies of men, and that, even if it holds true, the absolute increase is small, from 4.3 cases of melanoma for every 1,000 men who didn’t take Viagra to 8.6 of every 1,000 men who took it. The take-home message is that it’s important to worry about melanoma—which is largely caused by getting too much sun—but not yet about Viagra and melanoma.
For women with osteoporosis who are embarking on a “holiday” from taking a bone-building drug, the message from a study released today is “Bon voyage—see you in two years or so.” After menopause, loss of bone (osteoporosis) can lead to crippling fractures of the hip and spine. Drugs called bisphosphonates—alendronate (Fosamax) was the first on the market in the mid-1990s—slow bone loss. But after taking these drugs for a number of years, the balance can begin to tip from help to harm. A new report from the Fracture Intervention Trial Long-term Extension (FLEX) shows that measuring bone density after one year added no information that would have helped doctors identify who was at risk and perhaps should start taking a bisphosphonate again. Waiting two years is a good option for most women.
If you are a baby boomer, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you be tested for infection with the hepatitis C virus. The virus can live in the liver for decades, often causing silent damage that leads to liver failure or liver cancer. But wide-scale testing has proved to be a hard sell. One reason is that treatments to eliminate HCV infection have required weekly injections of one drug and oral doses of others. Treatment could take up to a year. Typical side effects of the injected drug required to clear the virus, called peginterferon, include depression, anxiety, irritability, anemia, and fatigue. Two drug studies published today in The New England Journal of Medicine mark the latest advance in making treatment for HCV easier and more effective. Researchers report that combining several oral antivirals—drugs taken in pill form, not as injections—clear the virus from the liver in more than 95% of people in just 12 weeks. One big obstacle is cost—oral therapy tops $80,000.