Each year, several million people with neck or back pain get injections of anti-inflammatory steroid medications. When they work (they don’t always), such injections can bring profound relief. But injecting these medications into the spine can cause partial or total paralysis, brain damage, stroke, and even death. Case reports beginning in 2002 highlighted serious problems linked to spinal steroid injections. In 2014, the FDA started requiring a warning on the labels of injectable steroids. A Viewpoint article in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association spotlights new safety recommendations to help prevent these rare but real problems. The new recommendations are part of the FDA’s Safe Use Initiative.
Pets can provide their owners with more than companionship. A new study, published online in the journal PLoS One, shows that pets can also help create human-to-human friendships and social support, both of which are good for long-term health. The effect isn’t limited to dogs. Other kinds of pets, including cats, rabbits, and snakes, can also be catalysts for making friends and finding social support. In a survey of residents of four cities, being a pet owner was the third most common way that respondents said they met people in their neighborhoods. Pet owners were 60% more likely than non–pet owners to get to know people in their neighborhoods they hadn’t known before. They were also more likely to have reported befriending someone they met through a pet-related connection or getting social support from them. As described in Get Healthy, Get a Dog, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, pet ownership has many direct physical and mental health benefits.
If you had chickenpox as a child, the virus that caused it can re-emerge later in life —to cause shingles. This condition, also known as herpes zoster, consists of a rash on one side of the body, often accompanied by excruciating pain. The rash typically goes away in about a month, but in some people, the pain lingers for weeks, months, or even years. This chronic pain is called post-herpetic neuralgia. A vaccine called Zostavax can help prevent shingles. It is recommended for people ages 60 and older. The vaccine is produced by treating live varicella-zoster virus in ways that weaken it but don’t kill it. Though Zostavax works reasonably well to prevent shingles, it tends to be less effective in older people. And because it contains live virus, it should not be given to people with weak immune systems. An experimental new vaccine which goes by the name HZ/su, just described in The New England Journal of Medicine, seems to get around these problems. In the international Zoster Efficacy Study in Adults 50 Years of Age or Older (ZOE-50), the new vaccine appeared to be effective even in older people. It may, however, cause more pain at the injection site and also more frequent muscle pain and headache than the current vaccine. Even if the new vaccine performs well in future tests, FDA approval would still be a few years away.
Calorie counts adorn the exterior of cans and bottles of sodas, juices, sports drinks, and many other beverages. Should alcoholic beverages and drinks also come with calorie counts? Yes, argues Dr. Fiona Sim, chair of the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for Public Health, in an editorial in The BMJ. She explores well-supported links between alcohol drinking and obesity. Beginning in December 2015, alcohol-related calorie counts will be available in the United States to some people who dine out. The Food and Drug Administration is requiring restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets to provide calorie information for food and some alcoholic drinks. The calorie counts may come as a wake-up call for drinkers who are accustomed to thinking of an average drink as containing 100 to 150 calories. That figure may be true for the standard 1.5-ounce shot of distilled spirits, 12-ounce bottle of beer, or 5-ounce glass of wine, but the “generous pour” at many bars and restaurants often doubles the amount. Moreover, concoctions containing syrups, liqueurs, juices, cream, and other ingredients can send the calories soaring.
Switching from a “Western” diet with lots of fat and meat to a fiber-rich diet for just two weeks makes conditions in the large intestine less favorable to the development of colon cancer. The opposite switch may promote the formation of cancer. That’s the conclusion from a small but elegant study done in urban Pittsburgh and rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. In the study, 20 volunteers from each area switched diets. For two weeks, the Americans ate a traditional high-fiber African diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans, while the Africans ate a Western diet with more fat, protein, and meat. In just two weeks, significant changes occurred in the lining of the colon and in its chemical and bacterial make-up in both groups, but in different directions. Those following the African diet showed improvements in colon health likely to protect against colon cancer, while those following the Western diet showed changes that could lead to colon cancer.
Atrial fibrillation is a heart rhythm disorder that affects millions of people. It can lead to potentially disabling or deadly strokes. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine adding motion-tracking software to standard MRI heart scans of 149 men and women with atrial fibrillation. The scans revealed specific changes in the muscles of the left atrium that increased stroke risk in some of the volunteers. These changes were not associated with age or other risk factors for stroke. This could help many people with this condition to avoid taking warfarin or other clot-preventing medications for life. But it is much too early to include MRI as part of the standard evaluation of people with atrial fibrillation — not to mention that such scans would significantly increase the cost of these evaluations. For now, doctors will continue to use standard tools to help determine stroke risk.
Each year, an alarming number of babies born in the United States spend their first few days withdrawing from drugs, often prescription painkillers their mothers took during their pregnancies. This problem, called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), has increased fourfold since 2004, according to a report published online yesterday in The New England Journal of Medicine. NAS occurs in many babies whose mothers took a type of medication called an opioid during pregnancy. (Two commonly used opioids are OxyContin and Vicodin.) These drugs easily pass from the mother’s bloodstream to the baby’s. In effect, NAS is a baby’s withdrawal from opioids. With medication and time, babies with NAS get better, but they have to spend time in the hospital. In short, they get a rough start on life that can set them back and possibly have long-term repercussions. With so many safe options for pain control, women who are pregnant should use opioids only if these medications are absolutely necessary.
Fibroids are noncancerous tumors that grow in the uterus. They may be smaller than a seed or bigger than a grapefruit. Depending on their size, number, and location, fibroids can cause heavy bleeding and long menstrual periods (which can, in turn, cause anemia), pelvic pain, frequent urination, or constipation. Fibroids can also cause infertility and repeated miscarriages. About 7 in 10 women will develop this condition at some point. Given how common uterine fibroids are, it’s surprising how few randomized trials have been done to compare treatment options. A clinical practice article in today’s New England Journal of Medicine lays out the options for treating uterine fibroids and discusses the factors women and their doctors should consider when making treatment decisions.
Fainting can be alarming. Sometimes it’s a signal of a heart or other problem that needs to be fixed. But sometimes it is nothing to worry about, caused by not eating, having blood drawn, or even laughing too hard. Up to one-third of people at low risk for serious short-term problems after fainting end up being hospitalized. A research letter in this week’s JAMA Internal Medicine points out that hospitalization for low-risk fainting can do more harm than good. Just because you’re in the emergency department after fainting doesn’t mean you need to be admitted to the hospital. Ask your physician if you’re at risk for a worse event if you go home, and make sure that if you’re admitted it’s because there’s a potential serious cause for your fainting that can’t be fully assessed in the emergency department.
On Marathon Monday, thousands of runners will start in Hopkinton, Mass., and finish in Copley Square. Some will glide along, some will lope, and others will shuffle. No matter how they run, or how fast they run, running the Boston Marathon is something special. Here are a few tips to make the Boston Marathon your marathon. 1) Never wear something on marathon day you haven’t worn for a distance run before. 2) If family or friends will be watching you along the route, try to know in advance where they will be. 3. “The wall” is real so have a plan. 4. Try to take in the atmosphere. 5. Enjoy the camaraderie.