Jeremy Laurance: In pain? A pair of binoculars might be the best medicine

Medical Life
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A curious story appeared in a small academic journal called 'Current Biology' last week, offering an intriguing insight into the human condition. It turns out that you can use binoculars to kill pain. Just looking through them at the affected limb makes the pain go away. But – here's the clever bit – you have to view the limb through the wrong end of the binoculars, so it appears smaller than it really is.

Oxford University researchers tried the method in 10 patients with chronic pain and found that not only the pain but also the swelling was reduced (after the patients had been asked to flex their hand a few times) when the binoculars were used.

Will binoculars now be available on NHS prescription? Should football coaches keep a pair slung round their necks to provide instant relief on the field?

One doctor explained the phenomenon like this: the experience of pain is proportionate to the brain's perception of danger to the affected limb. If it looks bigger, it looks more sore and more swollen and the brain acts to protect it (in effect, yelling "Don't touch"). Making it look smaller has the reverse effect.

Truly remarkable stuff. And it illustrates how little we understand about human behaviour. In pain, deflation helps, it seems. In risk, inflation is the problem.

One of the challenges of medicine is how to get patients to see things in proportion. We worry more about whether our children will get home safe after a night out – not mugged, raped or murdered – than we do about the packet of fags secreted at the bottom of the handbag. You don't need a degree in statistics to understand which carries the greater threat but, at an emotional level, we can't help listening out for the sound of the key in the lock with more anxiety than is triggered by the smell of smoke on their clothes.

It is the same with symptoms. Cancer specialists want us to take more notice of the signs that could reveal a tumour – the breast lump, persistent cough, or bleeding from the bottom. They want us, in other words, to stop looking at them from the wrong end of the binoculars. Our habit of doing so is one of the chief reasons why cancer survival is worse here than in the rest of Europe – because we ignore obvious symptoms, delay going to the GP, and get diagnosed and treated later.

What, though, would be the consequences of turning the binoculars round? Along with the lumps and bumps that we need to pay more attention to, how many other imperfections, real and imagined, would we spot? It would be a sorry day for Britain if we ended up as hypochondriac as the French, Germans or Spanish, swallowing vitamins by the sackful and preparing herbal concoctions as a defence against Armageddon.

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I share a house with three women and we had a ferocious debate the other night about toilet etiquette. Gentlemen, I was told, should lower the seat after use. If that is the case, I responded, ladies should raise it in their turn. Who is right? Answers on a postcard, please...

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