Terms used by lay individuals to designate certain medical conditions can vary significantly from those used by medical professionals. Similarly, certain conditions widely accepted by the general public may or may not have the same degree of acceptance in the medical world. Today’s Health Tip looks at some of these terms and conditions to try to separate myth from fact.
Brain freeze —Also known as “ice cream headache”, brain freeze occurs after eating cold foods or beverages too quickly. It develops when a cluster of nerves (sphenopalatine) in the hard palate of the mouth is rapidly chilled. When this happens, blood vessels within the brain constrict and then dilate, similar to what happens with a migraine headache. The pain itself is “referred”, or felt in an area distant from where the palate was chilled, often behind the eyes or in the forehead. The pain usually resolves in a few excruciating minutes. The best way of preventing “brain freeze” is to consume cold food or liquids at a slower rate.
Walking pneumonia—This is a lay term for a relatively mild lung infection in which bed rest or hospitalization is not required. In walking pneumonia, viruses or the mycoplasma bacteria are the most common causative organisms. Pneumonia symptoms, such as cough, fever and shortness of breath may be present, but are milder than in more serious cases such as pneumonia caused by the Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus) bacteria. In walking pneumonia caused by the mycoplasma bacteria, treatment with antibiotics can shorten the duration of illness.
Glandular cause for obesity—-In most cases, obesity is the result of overeating. In a small percentage of people, however, excess weight gain can be related to an endocrine issue. The endocrine system includes a collection of glands including the thyroid, ovaries, and adrenals. Among other functions, the endocrine system regulates metabolism, growth and development. One of the manifestations of an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) is weight gain. Cushing’s syndrome, a condition in which the adrenal glands produce an excess of the hormone, cortisol, can also lead to excess fat deposition. A third “glandular” cause for weight gain is polycystic ovary syndrome. This condition, estimated to affect 5 to10 percent of women of childbearing age is caused by high levels of hormones called androgens.
The funny bone—- If you’ve ever struck your “funny bone”, you know that it’s inappropriately named—it’s not funny at all. In fact, it’s downright painful. The structure that is responsible for “funny bone” pain is actually a nerve (ulnar nerve). This nerve lies fairly close to the surface of the skin and when struck, often sends an “electric shock” sensation down the forearm and into the little finger. One theory is that the name “funny bone” comes from the Latin word for the upper arm bone, the humerus.
Spontaneous human combustion—The short answer is no, this doesn’t exist. The human body is composed of between 60 and 70 percent non-flammable water and there is no credible explanation for it to simply burst into flames. There have been reported cases of victims who appeared to burn without an obvious source of heat or flame, however, there is no scientific proof that these incidences were related to spontaneous combustion. When investigated, many of these cases were later attributed to the victim being intoxicated or falling asleep with a lit cigarette. A second theory, the “wick effect”, suggests that body fat is capable of burning like a candle. This occurs when the victim’s clothing, which is acting as wick, is ignited by a heat source. Historically, there have been so few suspected cases of spontaneous human combustion that they scarcely deserve to be considered at all.
It is not uncommon for a medical condition to have different designations when being referred to by a lay individual or by a medical professional. In many cases, the lay terminology is actually more colorful or descriptive than the doctor’s lingo. This does not mean that one is better than the other, they are just different. On the other hand, there are also lay terms and commonly referred to conditions that fall into the myth category. In some cases, this can lead to misunderstanding of the significance or appropriate management of the condition.