THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH – 29 August 1999
Maggots might make mincemeat of expensive drugs
THE SAGA of the pain-relieving properties of nettles rumbles on, with several more unsolicited testimonials. "Last week, on a mountainside in Austria, miles from anywhere, I developed a pain in my arthritic toe like a red-hot poker," writes Mrs Pauline Gumbrell, from West Sussex. "And then I remembered your article on stinging nettles. Within half an hour of applying some leaves, the pain had gone and has not returned. Thank you for your sensible and good advice."
It was a similar story with Mrs Diane Preston-Jones, from Gloucestershire, who for a couple of years has been affected by an extremely painful left shoulder, made worse by "switching on lights, changing gears and sitting holding a newspaper". "After haymaking and before putting my cattle into the field, I had to clear the nettles from around the electric fence and stung my bare arm very badly," she writes. "Then, sitting down after lunch to read the paper, I realised there was no pain in my shoulder. It was miraculous." She collected a handful of nettles and placed them in a vase in her bathroom: "I continued to flip my shoulder with the nettles with a sharp brushing action until the shoulder was completely free of pain."
With these and similar anecdotes there can be little doubt that the analgesic properties of nettles are equal, or indeed superior, to conventional anti-inflammatory drugs – and without any of their side-effects. So why, when we pitch up to the doctor’s surgery with our aches and pains, are we not advised to go out into the fields and meadows and pick ourselves a bunch of nettles?
This medical reluctance to advocate such traditional remedies is a complex matter, but it is certainly bound up with the common perception that they are not really "scientific", certainly when compared with the pills and potions produced by the drug companies.
Nothing could be further from the truth, as Robert Root-Bernstein, professor of physiology at Maryland University, points out in his recent fascinating history of folk medicine. His investigations of honey, maggots, leaches, blood-letting, urine therapy, and much else besides, reveals not just a scientific rationale for their use, but reliable, if long-forgotten, evidence of their efficacy.
Consider maggots, whose wound-cleaning properties were noted by an American surgeon, William Baer, in injured soldiers during the First World War. By the time two men under his care had reached hospital, they had been on the battlefield for seven days and their severe wounds were crawling with maggots. Yet they had no fever, no infection, no gangrene – and when the maggots were removed, Baer saw "the most beautiful pink healing granulation tissue you can imagine".
He subsequently specialised in orthopaedics, where the greatest challenge was the debilitating and painful chronic infections of the bone known as osteomyelitis, which were resistant to every form of treatment. He selected 21 patients, removed as much necrotic tissue as possible, and packed the operating site with maggots. After two months all were completely healed.
"Baer’s maggot trial had proved to be the quickest and most successful treatment of osteomyelitis then known to medical science," writes Professor Root-Bernstein. Within a few years, live maggots were being used in more than 300 hospitals in Canada and the United States.
The arrival of penicillin made maggot therapy redundant, and it remained a medical curiosity for several decades, only to be rediscovered in recent years, although it now goes under the more respectable label of "biosurgery". "The indications for biosurgery include infected wounds of all types, especially those caused by antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria," one of its advocates commented in the British Medical Journal earlier this year, claiming that it produces "spectacular results".
The reason why maggot therapy should work is obvious enough. The larvae feed on the bacteria in the wound, as well as secreting "growth-promoting" chemicals which encourage healing.
The other much-neglected traditional remedies that Professor Root-Bernstein examined turned out to have a similar scientific basis, which naturally led him to wonder how, like maggot therapy, they, too, might be reintroduced into mainstream medical practice.
Their great virtue is that they are cheap. Professor Root-Bernstein suggests that the Government and health insurance companies put up funds to underwrite "their development, testing and dissemination", in anticipation of recouping the investment by promoting their use instead of the expensive remedies produced by drug companies.
It is certainly an ingenious idea that would open up a whole new fruitful area of medical research. Where better to start than with a formal comparison of the analgesic properties of nettles with anti-inflammatory drugs such as Brufen?
Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd