Harvard Health Blog

Join the discussion with experts from Harvard Health Publications and others like you on a variety of health topics, medical news and views.

Bad weather isn’t to blame for your aching back

It’s not uncommon for people to blame the weather for making their arthritis or back pain flare up. A team of Australian researchers has one word for that: bunk. They followed nearly 1,000 people who were seen for acute low back pain in several Sydney primary care clinics noted the weather conditions when the back pain started, as well one week and one month earlier. And they found … nothing. No connection between back pain and temperature, rain, humidity, or air pressure. The results were published online in the journal Arthritis Care & Research. This isn’t the first word on the pain-weather connection, and won’t be the last. If animals can sense earthquakes, then it may be possible for people with back pain, arthritis, or other types of pain to sense changes in the weather that the rest of us don’t notice. But we need good proof.

New strategies help smokers quit when nicotine replacement alone doesn’t work

Breaking a smoking habit can be hard. Nicotine is so addictive that smoking, or using tobacco in other forms, may be the toughest unhealthy habit to break. But it’s possible to quit. Nicotine replacement, in the form of nicotine patches, gum, sprays, inhalers, and lozenges, can help overcome the physical addiction. Medications such as varenicline (Chantix) and bupropion (Zyban) can also help. They can help reduce the cravings for a cigarette, and may also make smoking less pleasurable. Two new studies show that adding one or both of these medications to nicotine replacement can help improve quit rates. This research doesn’t suggest that smokers take varenicline and bupropion as a first step in smoking cessation. But when nicotine replacement alone hasn’t helped, adding varenicline with or without bupropion may lead to success.

Advice you may not hear from your doctor: Don’t go out in the sun without protection

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.

Expert panel says healthy women don’t need yearly pelvic exam

The annual pelvic exam, an oft-dreaded part of preventive care for women, may become the as-needed pelvic exam, thanks to new guidelines from the American College of Physicians. For decades, doctors have believed this exam may detect problems like ovarian cancer or a bacterial infection even if a woman had no symptoms. But an expert panel appointed by the American College of Physicians now says that healthy, low-risk women do not need to have a pelvic exam every year. The exam isn’t very effective at finding problems like ovarian cancer or a vaginal infection, and it often causes discomfort and distress. Sometimes it also leads to surgery that is not needed. The new guidelines only apply to the pelvic exam, and only in healthy women.

The “heartbreak of psoriasis” may affect your joints, heart, and mind

Nearly 7 million adults in the United States suffer from psoriasis. This condition is characterized by red patches of skin covered with silvery scales, often on the elbows and knees. But today doctors understand psoriasis as an inflammatory condition that may affect more than just the skin. People with psoriasis are more likely to have other conditions linked to inflammation, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. And nearly a third of people with psoriasis develop psoriatic arthritis, which causes stiff, painful joints and other debilitating symptoms. Several studies suggest that weight loss and vigorous exercise, both of which help combat inflammation, may help thwart psoriasis as well.

FDA warns about blood clot risk with testosterone products

“Replacing” a hormone the body normally makes when it is running low isn’t necessarily the safest thing to do. Women and their doctors learned this with estrogen after menopause. Now the FDA is sounding a warning that testosterone therapy can cause potentially dangerous blood clots in men. Such blood clots, called deep-vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism kill as many as 180,000 Americans each year, more than the number of people who die from breast, prostate, colon, and skin cancers combined. The new warning is not related to the FDA’s evaluation of possible links between testosterone therapy and stroke, heart attack, and death. Experts recommend testosterone therapy for men with a low testosterone level and one or more of the “classic” symptoms. For the rest? They get a talk-with-your-doctor recommendation. The warnings highlight that taking testosterone isn’t risk free. Combined with the lack of evidence about who really benefits, it means that the decision to start testosterone therapy is an individual one. A man must weigh the potential benefits against the potential increased risks of heart attack, stroke, and blood clots. If the balance tips in favor of moving forward, then trying testosterone is reasonable thing to do.

Harvard Health books win awards

Four Harvard Health books won Wil Solimene Awards for Excellence in Medical Communication this weekend. They are Almost Addicted, by J. Wesley Boyd, MD, PhD, and Eric Metcalf, MPH; Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Stress, by Jeff Brown, MD; Almost Depressed, by Jefferson Prince, MD, and Shelley Carson, PHD; and The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, by Peter M. Wayne, PhD, and Mark L. Fuerst.

Teen suicide tries increased after FDA toughened antidepressant warning

A few years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued warnings that children and teens who took a common kind of antidepressant might experience suicidal thoughts. The point of the warning was to make sure that parents and doctors paid closer attention to kids taking these medications. But the plan may have backfired. A national team of researchers tracked antidepressant use among 2.5 million young people between 2000 and 2010. After the FDA’s warnings in 2003 and 2004, use of commonly prescribed antidepressants fell by 30% in teenagers while suicide attempts rose by 22%. The researchers concluded that the decrease in antidepressant use, sparked by worries over suicidal thoughts, may have left many depressed young people without appropriate treatment and that may have boosted the increase in suicide attempts.

Caffeine and a healthy diet may boost memory, thinking skills; alcohol’s effect uncertain

A study published in this month’s Journal of Nutrition suggests that drinking caffeinated beverages, having the occasional alcoholic drink, and eating a healthy diet may help preserve memory and thinking skills long into old age. In particular, foods that are part of the Mediterranean diet—fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, olive oil, and whole grains—show promise for preserving memory and preventing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

“Bionic pancreas” could help people with type 1 diabetes control blood sugar

Researchers at Boston University and Massachusetts General Hospital have developed a bionic pancreas. In an early test of the device, reported online this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, it helped control blood sugar levels in 20 adults and 32 teenagers with type 1 diabetes who went about their daily lives without the constant monitoring and injecting that’s required with type 1 diabetes. Right now, this artificial pancreas is essentially an app that runs on an iPhone wirelessly connected to a monitor worn on the abdomen that continually checks blood sugar and two pumps, one for insulin and one for glucagon. The team that developed the bionic pancreas have begun a second round of testing, and hope to have a more sophisticated version on the market in five years. While not a cure, the development of a bionic pancreas represents a bridge that would let people with type 1 diabetes control their blood sugar with less hassle, and more safely, than they do now.