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Omaha Magazine

Quack Medicine with Staying Power

Dec 30, 2021 11:51AM ● By Tamsen Butler
brown vintage medicine bottle

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Cocaine being used as a cure for depression; tobacco for constipation; and lobotomies for mental illness. Medical science has boasted some bizarre treatments and theories in years past, but some medical myths have staying power thanks to grandparents passing down “medical knowledge” that are accepted as fact in families.

Nurse practitioner Amy Wallingford said there are some medical myths that she encounters frequently with patients that she has to debunk, much to the patients’ surprise. 

Putting butter on a burn. “This can actually hold the heat and it creates a good environment for bacteria to grow,” Wallingford said. This myth can be traced back to a battlefield medicine manual in the 19th century, but going even further back to ancient Egypt, mud and excrement were the remedies of choice for burns and injuries.

Using whiskey for teething babies. Though it’s not known when this medical advice first came to be, it is known that doctors gave this advice to parents in the mid-1800s. It was more about getting the baby to sleep and less about relieving gum pain. Consider the ratio of a baby to an adult and it becomes clear how even a little alcohol rubbed on a baby’s gums can translate into a dangerous dosage.

Cold/wet weather makes you sick. The cold isn’t directly responsible for getting people sick, although some viruses thrive in lower temperatures and cold air can indeed lower the immune system’s ability to fight off infections. Spending more time indoors during cold weather means more time spent around other people and therefore more opportunities to encounter germs. But cold weather alone won’t make you sick; that’s the work of a virus or bacteria.

Sugar makes kids hyper. Medical research shows no link between sugar consumption and hyperactivity with neurotypical children. Sugar is typically present in social situations in which kids are expected to be high-energy, such as cake at a birthday party, but in these instances it’s probably the child’s excitement causing the hyperactive behavior as opposed to the sugar consumed. 

You need to stay awake if you’ve had a concussion. It was once assumed that allowing a person with a concussion to fall asleep might lull the person into a coma or death, but this isn’t necessarily true. In fact, sleep is one of the most powerful recovery methods for people with brain injuries within the first few days of the injury. It’s important to note that sleep isn’t advised in concussed patients until they receive medical care if they’re unable to carry on a conversation or walk, or they have dilated pupils.

Chewing gum stays in your stomach for seven years. While it’s true that your body won’t digest chewing gum after it’s swallowed, the body does still move the gum through the digestive system safely. The gum winds up in stool, fairly intact, and takes a few days to work its way through the body—but not seven years.

You should wait an hour after eating before you go swimming. This myth originally stemmed from the idea that the stomach pulled so many bodily resources to digest food that the arms and legs wouldn’t be able to function properly while swimming, leading to drowning. While it’s true that some foods at certain quantities might cause stomach discomfort if you exercise right after eating them, it’s unlikely to lead to anything more than uncomfortable cramps.

Cracking your knuckles leads to arthritis. Cracking knuckles has not been proven to be detrimental nor beneficial to joints, but there is also no research to support the idea that cracking knuckles will eventually lead to arthritis. Some knuckle crackers may experience temporary inflammation in their fingers, but actual injuries from cracking knuckles are rare. 

Wandering uteruses and hysteria, oh my! “This is straight up funny,” said Wallingford, explaining that medical professionals once believed in “wandering uteruses.” Depending on where the uterus wandered within a woman’s body, physicians could pinpoint the reason for her various maladies. Of course, in modern society, it’s well known that the uterus doesn’t actually travel throughout the body mischievously. 

Is it possible that there are medical practices accepted today as fact that will someday be regarded as myth? Consider this advice from Dr. Amber Tyler:

“Babies don’t need to be burped,” said Dr. Tyler. “At some unknown point a long time ago, someone was probably trying to soothe a fussy baby by patting them on the back and the baby burped, and they decided babies must need help to burp and told all their friends. So now everyone burps babies. Physiologically that doesn’t make much sense. We don’t need help to burp, and our lower esophageal sphincter [opens easily as] an infant. With their laxer lower esophageal sphincter it should actually be easier for them to burp than it is for adults.”

“There have now actually been studies done that show that the only significant difference between babies who were burped and babies who weren’t is that burped babies spit up more,” explained Dr. Tyler, shattering a medical myth long-held by parents in Western culture. 

This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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