Thursday, February 7, 2008

Health: Conditions You Couldn’t—and Shouldn’t—Do A Thing About

9 Conditions You Couldn’t—and Shouldn’t—Do A Thing About
Sometimes it's best to let the body heal itself
By Rich Maloof for MSN Health & Fitness

“First, do no harm.”

That’s the numero uno credo of physicians around the world, and a reminder that medical intervention can sometimes do more harm than good. The human body has a remarkable ability to function as its own pharmacy and even its own emergency room. Sometimes, wise doctors know, we need to step aside and let the body conduct its own repairs.

Several of the conditions listed here can be difficult to endure, and perhaps the future of medicine will save us the pain and speed the healing. Until then, let time heal all of these wounds.

Broken Rib

For years, physicians would wrap a patient’s chest tightly in bandages to immobilize a rib fracture—until it was understood that the practice led to increased instances of pneumonia. Bandaging a torso inhibits deep breathing, which can lead to respiratory infection. Your upper body’s muscles and skeleton adequately form a de facto cast of their own. Unfortunately, all you can do for a broken rib is try not to laugh or cough too much; the force of either is very painful and can even re-fracture a healing break.

Food Poisoning

So you thought the deli’s tuna salad was supposed to be brown, and now you can’t be more than eight feet from a toilet. A wave of vomiting and three or four hours of diarrhea is not the best way to spend an afternoon, but it’s the best way to clear your body of the bacteria you’ve ingested. “The more you try to stop it, the more trouble you’re going to get into,” warns Dr. Thom Horowitz, chairman of family medicine at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. “Your body is trying to clean itself out. Our rule is, ‘The first couple of hours of diarrhea are your friend.’” When you’re finally ready to eat again, find a new deli. And a new friend.

Conjunctival Bleed

This condition sounds and looks far worse than it is. When tiny blood vessels burst in the eye, blood gets trapped beneath the eye’s clear surface (the conjunctiva), leaving red splotches in the white part (the sclera). Your doctor may want to check your blood pressure and discuss blood-thinning medications, but a conjunctival bleed can occur with no apparent cause—and there’s no treatment necessary. The blood will disappear, absorbed into your eye, within two weeks.


They say one of the few times a man pays full attention is when he’s talking about himself. Another is when blood is coming out of his penis. Traces of blood in the semen, known as hematospermia, seems nightmarish but is typically the harmless result of blood vessels breaking in the testicle or along the urethra. The condition often follows sexual exploits that are a bit too, er, vigorous. “It happens when someone’s into indoor sports,” Horowitz adds dryly. “Men almost always panic when they see that but it’s not associated with any bad diseases. Unless it keeps bleeding, get a good night’s sleep. And be a little more gentle next time.”


A cough that results from an upper respiratory infection is one of the body’s protective mechanisms; expelling air prevents secretions from getting into the lungs. Though very annoying to the patient (and to others in their vicinity), coughing can and should last the six or so weeks it takes to completely clear the infection. Says Horowitz, “As long as a person is not having fevers or bringing up large amounts of colorful phlegm—or getting exhausted because they can’t get any rest—it is actually counterproductive to stop a cough.”

Sheared-off Nail

Having a fingernail or toenail torn off can be torturous, there’s no question about it. But once the nail comes sliding off its bed, there’s little to do other than cover the area and wait for it to start growing back from the cuticle. If there’s blood under a nail and the patient is desperate to save it, a doctor can sometimes drill a small hole to drain the blood.

Fractured Skull

When you break an arm or a leg, the fractured bone needs to be immobilized (with a splint, cast and/or sling) so that it can heal in its proper position. When the dome of bone around your brain is cracked, though, only rarely will movement cause the fissure to open or worsen. Short of a second blow to the head, the fracture most likely will stay aligned and heal on its own. “There can be a problem if the fracture is out of place, putting pressure on a nerve, or if there’s bleeding underneath it,” Horowitz says. “The issue is not whether the skull is broken but whether it’s out of alignment.”

Ruptured Eardrum

The eardrum is a thin membrane that can be breached by loud noise, air pressure (e.g., on an airplane or while scuba diving), infection, or by having a friend stick a pencil in there. A perforation of the membrane is like a tear in fabric, but the hole will usually close on its own as the delicate tissue grows back. One of the worst things you can do for a ruptured eardrum is to use ear drops, because the ear needs to remain dry and free of infection to repair itself. When a rupture worsens or won’t heal, a doctor may patch it in a simple office or outpatient procedure.

Missing Recommended Sleep

“People get very concerned if they’re not getting eight hours of sleep because they see the commercials on TV and the propaganda,” asserts Horowitz. “Getting people into a coma for a full eight or nine hours has turned into a multimillion-dollar business.” It’s an oppositional view in the age of Ambien and Lunesta, but people vary tremendously in the amount of sleep they require. When assessing your own requirements, separate the concepts of sleep and of rest. Are you functioning properly in the daytime? Are you alert and clear-headed, or were you fired for napping in a board meeting? As long as you regularly feel rested and healthy, there’s not a pressing need to spend a third of your life in your pajamas.

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