Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Never trust cop dramas when it comes to medical advice - some standard howlers exposed

If there's something we all know for certain - because we've seen it a thousand time in films and TV crime shows - it's that if someone has been shot, you need to get the bullet out as soon as possible or they'll die. And if someone is suffering from concussion, you must keep them awake at all costs. And heart attacks always hurt. Defibrillators can shock a stopped heart back to life. If someone has ingested poison, you must make them throw up pronto! Heart attacks always hurt. Apparently, not one of these things is true - or, at least, not true in the majority of cases.

If someone's been shot, and you're not in a hospital, removing the bullet is almost invariably more dangerous than leaving it where it is. That's what it says in "5 Dangerous Medical Myths That You Don’t Want to Fall For" on the site:
For starters, once a bullet is lodged in the body, it’s probably done all the damage it can do. It’s not going anywhere. It’s probably not going to cause lead poisoning. And since bullets reach a very high temperature as they leave the barrel, it’s going to be completely sterile. If you were shot, you could probably leave the bullet in there for the rest of your life without experiencing any complications.
On the other hand, trying to remove the bullet outside of a hospital setting could lead to an infection. And bullets aren’t exactly smooth after they punch through soft tissue and bone. There are usually plenty of jagged bits that could easily rupture blood vessels upon removal. Taking a bullet out of the human body is a very delicate procedure that is almost always unnecessary; and when it is needed, it’s best done by a professional in a sterile surgical room.
It's usually best to let concussed people sleep it off. Most of the time, poison can do even more damage on its way up than on its way down. Defibrillators stop the heart beating, in the hope that it will act normally when it restarts - they can't actually power up a moribund ticker. Anything between 40% and 60% of all heart attacks are not accompanied by pain - for obvious reasons, they tend to be the dangerous ones.

As for more general medical myths - i.e. ones that aren't just spread by TV or film dramas - it seems that sugar doesn't necessarily make kids wig out: it's more likely that children tend to ingest more sugar than usual at events where they're encouraged to get overexcited in any case, like parties. There's no proof that reading in the dark or sitting "too near" the television has any permanent effect on one's eyesight. Cold weather doesn't make us more susceptible to colds. And taking measures to boost one's immune system to help it fight off colds is pointless: sneezing, shivering, getting feverish and producing gallons of snot isn't the the direct result of the cold itself - it's the result of your immune system over-reacting wildly and moving straight to DEFCON 3 in order to destroy a relatively harmless little virus: if you boost your immune system, it will simply behave even more hawkishly, causing you even greater suffering.

You could write out everything I know about medicine on my little fingernail (and I bite my nails). So, if the online articles I've been reading with such enjoyment this afternoon (including this one and this one) are all nonsense, please feel free to set the record straight. Next they'll be telling us that smoking 60 cigarettes, drinking two bottles of Vodka and consuming 6000 calories a day are somehow bad for us!


  1. I'm not sure about some of that. Echinacea has been tested over and over again and with some success as an immune system stimulant to prevent colds - and I have proved to my own satisfaction that it works as such.

    Similarly, a top optician told me that sitting with your nose stuck in front of a computer screen did indeed damage eyesight. This was over 20 years ago. He also told me that his professional association didn't accept that as a fact, but predicted that they would. He was proved right.

    My view is that reading online articles about medicine is very injurious to one's health. Especially those in the Daily Mail, which often have fatal consequences as the human mind tries to reconcile wildly conflicting advice from 'experts', day after day after day...

    1. Have you read Ben Goldacre's 2009 book, "Bad Science". Even though he writes for the Guardian, it's excellent - especially on the scientific illiteracy of many of the journalists who churn out the sort of health stories you refer to: apparently, editors tend to hand over the sensational "Lemons Give You Cancer!" or "Maltesers More Effective than Viagra" rubbish to non-science journalists, because anyone with a science background refuses to handle them (and, presumably, ends up being fired).

  2. Reminds me of the old film convention that if you shoot someone with a silencer fitted to your gun they always die silently.

    1. Similarly, as long as the person who stabs a German sentry is a British commando with streaks of boot-polish on his face, the same rule applies - the German will expire noiselessly, no matter where he has been stabbed or whether a hand has been clamped over his mouth or not.