James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

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‘Medicine’ which will kill or cure

Self-treatment comes in the most incredible guises

Ever since a patient of mine cured his sciatica by crashing his car, I have taken an interest in unusual and dramatic forms of self-treatment, whether these are deliberate or involuntary. A week earlier a charming West Indian car mechanic had pulled his back while fixing an engine. Stoically, he carried on working as his pain gradually got worse and started to radiate down the back of his neck—a classic symptom of sciatica usually due to a diplaced disc.

As he was driving to work one morning, his car skidded and crashed into a lamp-post. He emerged shaken but unhurt to find his sciatica had completely disappeared. Indeed, it was this instantaneous recovery that finally brought him to the surgery for a check-up as he feared he must have harmed himself in some other way. I assured him he had not, and that he had benefited from an unusual, if expensive, form of self-treatment—‘auto-manipulation’. A method of self-treatment discovered by a farmer in Illinois subsequently proved to be life-saving in the South American jungle. The farmer, hyper-allergic to bee stings, found by chance that applying a high-voltage shock to the place where he had been stung prevented the usual severe reaction.

Hearing of this, an Ecuadorian doctor, Ronald Guderian, used the same technique on 34 consecutive cases of snakebite and found that ‘within 15 minutes’ all the pain had gone and the usual complications of an untreated bite—swelling, bleeding, shock and kidney failure—did not develop. He speculated that the electric shock must constrict the local blood vessels, preventing the spread of the snake venom.

Occasionally, self-treatment may be life-saving, but not in the way intended. The Lancet reported the case of an Australian ratcatcher who regularly dosed himself with rat poison—the anti-clotting drug warfarin—as a general preventive measure against having a heart attack.

One day he took a little too much and started haemorrhaging through the rectum. Investigation in hospital revealed the source to be a small operable cancer of the lower bowel. If it had not been for the warfarin-induced bleeding, the tumour may not have been detected until it was too late.

The most dramatic example of self-treatment involved do-it-yourself brain surgery. Writing in the British Journal of Psychiatry, Professor L. Solyom, of the University of Columbia, described the case of a young man, severely afflicted with an obsessive disorder centred on cleanliness, who would spend up to six hours a day just washing his hands and taking showers.

This, naturally enough, interfered with his ability to lead a normal life and as a result he became depressed and then suicidal. He decided to end it all by shooting himself through the head—from which injury, with the help of neurosurgeons at the local hospital, he surprisingly recovered.

To the patient’s relief and the amazement of his psychiatrists, he was now no longer depressed and his obsession with cleanliness was limited to insisting that his mother kept the bathroom and kitchen spotlessly clean.

Two years later he was found to be ‘consistently calm and cheerful’ and had completed his high-school education.

A scan showed the bullet had damaged part of the frontal lobe of the brain, fortuitously mimicking the technique of lobotomy used by brain surgeons in the Forties for the treatment of intractable mental illness.

However, the award for the most consistent and ingenious method of self-treatment goes to a farmer in Northern Ireland who, over a period of 30 years, discovered several cures for the recurrent bouts of palpitations caused by his abnormally fast heart rhythm.

This condition—known as a supraventricular tachycardia—is usually treated by drugs, though often responds to ‘shocks’ of various types. When the farmer first got his palpitations he would jump from a barrel and thump his feet very hard on the ground when landing.

This became less effective with time, so his next cure involved removing his clothes, climbing a ladder and jumping from a considerable height into a cold-water tank. Later he discovered that the simplest treatment was with one hand to grab hold of his six-volt electrified cattle fence, earthing the shock by simultaneously sticking a finger of the other hand into the ground.

Ingenious as all these treatments were, his cardiologist advised that a more up-to-date approach was probably called for—and the farmer now has a special pacemaker which recognises when his heart rhythm shoots up to 150 beats a minute, and administers two small electric shocks which restore it to normal.

Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd