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SCIENCE FILE

Old wives' tales and doctor-speak laid bare

A journal debunks the turkey myth, decodes terms like 'disco biscuit.'

December 22, 2007|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

What is a "Hasselhoff" in doctor-speak? Does eating turkey really make you unusually sleepy? Why is it better to celebrate a big victory with champagne rather than beer?

Those are some of the questions addressed in the British Medical Journal's Christmas issue, which collects some of the more arcane reports the journal received during the year.

A Hasselhoff is a patient who shows up at an emergency room with an injury and a bizarre explanation, said Dr. Paul Keeley of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary in a short compendium of newly minted words used by doctors. The term comes from former "Baywatch" star David Hasselhoff's bizarre 2006 shaving accident in which he struck his head on a chandelier; the broken glass severed four tendons and an artery in his right arm, requiring immediate surgery.

Even snarkier is the term "Ringo," after Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, which refers to a member of a team who is expendable. Draw your own conclusions.

Other new terms include: "disco biscuit," another name for the drug Ecstasy; "Jack Bauer," a doctor still up and working after 24 hours; and "testiculation," "the holding forth with expressive hand gestures by a consultant on a subject in which he or she has little knowledge."

The turkey myth, which often comes up this time of year, is attributed to the supposed high levels of sleep-inducing tryptophan in the birds, wrote Dr. Rachel C. Vreeman of the Indiana University School of Medicine and Dr. Aaron E. Carroll of the Regenstrief Institute in Indianapolis in a study of medically oriented old wives' tales that many doctors still believe.

A study of the literature, however, shows that turkey, chicken and beef all contain similar levels of tryptophan, and pork and cheese contain even more. A more likely explanation for drowsiness after Christmas dinner is overeating and, perhaps, consuming wine with the meal.

Other tales unproven or flat-out wrong include: We use only 10% of our brains; hair and fingernails continue to grow after death; reading in dim light ruins your eyesight; shaving causes hair to grow back faster and coarser; and cellphones are dangerous in hospitals.

The brain tale is particularly widespread and has even been attributed to Albert Einstein, but it is wrong. Imaging studies of the brain in action show that all brain cells are in constant use.

Hair and fingernails only appear to grow because the surrounding skin becomes desiccated and shrinks, making them appear longer. And the blunt ends of shaved hair only appear coarser than the tapered ends of uncut hairs.

Another report in the journal deals with the advantages conferred by high altitudes.

Many athletes train at high altitudes because they believe the lower air pressure makes their bodies produce more hemoglobin, increasing their endurance. A new study by the Systems Analysis, Modeling and Prediction Group of the University of Oxford shows that the benefits also hold for teams -- good news for Denver's Broncos and Rockies.

The group studied the results of 1,460 soccer matches played in 10 countries over a 100-year period and found that high-altitude teams have a distinct advantage.

When two competing teams trained and lived at the same altitude, the home team won 53.7% of the time. But when the home team's stadium was about 2.1 miles higher than that of the visiting team -- such as when a team from Rio de Janeiro played in La Paz, Bolivia -- the home team's winning percentage was 82.5%. Conversely, when La Paz played in Rio, the home team won only 21.3% of the time. Similar discrepancies were observed for other teams as well.

The authors' conclusion: High-altitude training presents an advantage for high-altitude teams playing at both low and high elevations.

And finally, an Australian physician addressed the importance of champagne, which has been used in celebrations since the 18th century. Dr. Robert J. Douglas of the Royal Adelaide Hospital reported the case of an Australian-rules football player who went to the emergency room having difficulty breathing after his team won the premiership. Physicians discovered a round metallic object with scalloped edges in his windpipe -- in other words, a beer bottle cap he had accidentally swallowed while being sprayed with the alcohol.

A review of medical literature showed no similar examples of impaired breathing caused by champagne corks. Hence, their recommendation: Stick to champagne for raucous celebrations.

--

thomas.maugh@latimes.com

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