Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Analgesic Ladder

Quite possibly the most common condition that a physician needs to treat is pain. Being the main way for the body to communicate that there is something wrong, pain can take various forms to make us suffer physically. The best way to make this pain go away is to treat the underlying cause, but often the cause is unclear and we need to manage the symptoms first.

Just as there are many kinds of pain, there are numerous different types of analgesics, or painkillers. Doctors and nurses take into account various factors to decide which analgesia to use, how much to give and how often to give it. For example, opioids (e.g. morphine) are one of the most effective pain-reliefs, but it comes with many adverse effects such as vomiting, constipation, drowsiness, slowing of breathing and potentially death. To facilitate this, the World Health Organisation created the concept of the “Analgesic Ladder”, establishing some simple rules to guide appropriate analgesia administration.

The ladder has been adapted to accommodate for new research and advancing pain-relief methods, but the general principle remains the same.

First, simple non-opioid medications should be given orally and regularly. Almost always, the first-line analgesia is paracetamol (acetaminophen in USA). It is an effective pain-relief, especially when it is taken regularly four times a day, while being extremely safe as long as it is not taken above the maximum dosage (4 grams/day). As effective as it is, people often neglect to take it regularly as directed, or take it too late when the pain has progressed to a severe level, hence the common misunderstanding that it is weak.

The next step of non-opioid medications are non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or diclofenac. These medications work particularly well for musculoskeletal pain, muscle aches from viral illnesses and simple headaches. However, they are prone to causing stomach upsets, ulcers and kidney dysfunction. They can also exacerbate asthma in some patients. It should be taken in conjunction with paracetamol as they have a synergistic effect. Because of its gastrointestinal side effects, it is recommended to be taken after meals.

When paracetamol and NSAIDs are ineffective at easing the pain, a weak, oral opioid such as codeine or tramadol is added in. These medications are powerful, but often have undesirable side effects such as nausea and vomiting, constipation, confusion and agitation.

As we step up the ladder, we introduce stronger opioids. This includes oral options such as sevredol and oxycodone, to intravenous options such as IV morphine and fentanyl. As effective as these medicines are, they must be used with caution given the significant adverse effects such as opioid narcosis, where a patient can stop breathing or enter a coma.

Other than opioids, there are various other options of pain relief that may be explored as adjuncts. Neuropathic pain from nerve damage is notorious for being opioid-resistant, so medications such as gabapentin or tricyclic acids (traditionally an antidepressant) may be used. Ketamine is sometimes used as it has analgesic properties. A PCA (patient-controlled analgesia) pump with morphine or fentanyl may be more effective to optimise the timing of doses. Long-acting opioids such as methadone may be considered. Lastly, nerve blocks with local anaesthesia, such as epidurals, are often used in conjunction to reduce the need for opioids.

Pain is an extremely useful evolutionary tool as it allows as us to avoid harm, but it can create just as many problems. The analgesic ladder helps health professionals better manage pain so that patients do not have to suffer as much while they are being investigated and treated.

Posted in History & Literature

Rod Of Asclepius

There are many symbols that represent the field of medicine such as a red cross or a stethoscope. However, one of the most famous symbols representing medicine and healthcare is the rod of Asclepius. This symbol is used in the logos of numerous medical associations and army medical corps. Those who do know of the rod may describe it as a staff with two wings and two snakes intertwining on it, but this is a common misconception. That symbol is called the caduceus and is actually the symbol of Hermes – the Greek god of messengers, merchants, markets, the high roads, gamblers and thieves. The misconception is very common and many medical associations use the caduceus as their symbol instead of the correct Rod of Asclepius.

The Caduceus


The actual rod of Asclepius is much simpler looking, as it is simply a stick with one serpent intertwining it. The reason that it is associated with medicine and healthcare is that it was wielded by the Greek god Asclepius – the god of medicine and healing. Asclepius was the son of Apollo and had a particular interest in the human body and the healing of ailments. The ancient Greeks often referred to Asclepius in the field of medicine. In fact, the famous Hippocratic Oath originally began with the line “I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods…” (Apollo was the god of many things and medicine was one of his minor domains).

The rod of Asclepius


So why does the rod of Asclepius have a serpent wrapped around it? In Greek mythology, it is said that Asclepius commanded many non-venomous snakes which he used in healing rituals. The snakes would crawl around the temple, living freely among the physicians and patients. A certain species of snake called the Aesculapian snake is considered to be the model for this story. The reason why the Greeks chose the snake as the animal of healing may be because snakes shed their skin periodically – symbolising rebirth and fertility. 

Another possible root of the symbol may be the traditional treatment for a certain parasitic infection. The Guinea worm (Dracunculus medinensis) is a parasite that lives under the skin, digging itself out through a painful blister when mature. As the blisters burn, the patient immerses the area in cold water to soothe it. The worm detects the change in temperature and releases its larva, completing its life cycle. The traditional treatment was to slowly pull the worm out of the skin, entwine it around a stick and leave it for a period of hours to weeks until it would be completely removed. The Greeks may have taken this image (of the worm wrapped around a stick) and applied it to the rod of Asclepius.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


Despite the implied disgusting nature (especially smell) of urine, it is one of the most important types of “samples” used in medicine for diagnostic purposes. Like blood, urine can tell a lot about a person’s health and whether they have a certain disease or not.

One of the earliest recorded uses of urine as a medical test was for the detection of diabetes mellitus. People noticed that the urine of a diabetic would often smell quite sweet, and also taste sweet (it is uncertain how they came to test urine this way). This is because a diabetic has too much glucose (sugar) in their blood, causing it to spill over into the urine as the kidneys become saturated. In fact, the words diabetes mellitus stand for “passing through” (referring to the symptom of frequent urination) and “honey-sweet”. A completely unrelated disease called diabetes insipidus also causes frequent urination, but the urine does not taste sweet, hence “insipidus” (tasteless). This type of etymology is also seen in countries like Korea, China and Japan, where the word 당뇨(糖尿) literally stands for “sugar urine”. Although we no longer taste urine, it is still used to gauge the severity of diabetes by measuring the amount of protein in the urine (due to kidney damage).

There are many other tests one can do with urine to check for certain diseases. The chemical composition of urine tells us about the hydration status of a person, while giving away clues to diseases that cause electrolyte imbalance. It also gives some indication of how well the kidneys can do their job of concentrating urine. Certain markers such as white blood cells and bacteria in the urine can indicate a urinary tract infection. Antibodies in the urine can point towards a certain type of bacteria as the cause of a patient’s pneumonia, or whether a woman is pregnant (βhCG). Looking for proteins or sediments in the urine can be diagnostic of certain kidney diseases such as glomerulonephritis. Even rare diseases such as phaeochromocytomas can be diagnosed from the level of catecholamines in the urine (this is slightly too complex for our scopes).

A more interesting part of urinalysis is looking at the colour of the urine. Urine is usually a yellow colour, ranging in darkness depending on the concentration of urine. But when there are other things in the urine, the colour changes. Reddish urine suggests blood (which is not an indicator of kidney failure as TV shows say), which can be caused by trauma, UTIs, kidney stones or some other disease. Brown urine could be due to muscle breakdown somewhere in the body. Urine can appear very dark if the person has an illness called obstructive jaundice. Eating beetroots can cause your urine to turn bright red, while medications can change your urine colour from anywhere from red to orange to green. Murky or cloudy urine (with an offensive smell) may suggest a UTI.

Perhaps the most interesting urine colour known in medicine is purple. This unique colour is produced in a rare genetic disease called acute intermittent porphyria. If urine is collected from a patient suffering an attack of AIP (causes crippling abdominal pain) then left in the sun or under a UV light, it will turn purple due to certain proteins. Because of this, urine collected to test for AIP is wrapped in tinfoil before sending to the lab (where the chemicals are measured) to limit light exposure.

(Also read the article on how different colours of skin can be of diagnostic importance:

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


Among the thousands of signs and symptoms in the field of medicine, there is one that every doctor and medical student knows since the development of medicine. Clubbing is an easily noticeable sign in a patient’s fingers that can have wide implications on their health.

Clubbing is essentially when the angle (gap) between the fingernail bed and finger disappears. The formal definition is much more complicated, such as “the loss of the normal <165° angle, or Lovibond angle between the nailbed and the fold”, but for all intents and purposes the simple definition is sufficient.

To see if a patient has clubbing, the physician carefully studies the fingers against light. There are a few ways to check for clubbing but the most popular methods are holding the fingers out straight and holding them parallel to the ground, checking the angle between the nailbed and finger, or the Schamroth’s window test. The latter test is done by holding two opposing fingers (such as the left and right index fingers) against each other nail to nail. The fingers are then held against the light so that the light can shine through the “window” that is made. If the window is not seen, the test is positive and the patient has clubbing.

What does clubbing suggest? Clubbing was first noticed by Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, who observed that people with clubbing tended to grab their chest and fall dead. This is one of the most common associations to clubbing – a congenital cyanotic heart defect such as tetralogy of Fallot or patent ductus arteriosus. Other common associations are related to the lungs, such as lung cancer (one of the most common causes) and various other lung diseases such as interstitial lung disease, tuberculosis and other chronic infections. There are also a myriad of other diseases associated to clubbing, including but not limited to: Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, cirrhosis, celiac disease, Graves disease and certain types of cancers (lung, gastrointestinal and Hodgkin’s lymphoma mainly). Clubbing can also be idiopathic, where there is no apparent cause for the clubbing and the person just has it (possibly just born with it).

Despite knowing about clubbing for over 2000 years, we still do not know the exact reasons for clubbing. There are theories that it is related to a fall in blood oxygen content leading to vasodilation in the peripheries. As the pathophysiology is not clear and so many diseases are associated with it, when clubbing is found in the patient the physician should investigate the related organ systems (heart, lungs, GI mainly) to narrow down the possible cause of it. As many of the causes (such as lung cancer) carry a rather morbid prognosis, it is quite important to notice whether the patient has clubbing when doing a physical examination.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


Hysteria is a disease that was believed until the late 19th century to be a disease unique to women due to a pathology of the uterus (hystera is Greek for uterus). The most common symptom was mental disturbance (such as extreme moods) accompanied by shortness of breath, vaginal dryness, nervousness, insomnia, oedema, faintness and many more. The treatment back then was for a physician to massage or stimulate the patient’s vagina to induce an orgasm. By the 19th century, the treatment evolved and involved vibrators and water massage machines.

This disease was first noted by Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine. Galen, another famous physician in the 2nd century, believed it to be caused by sexual deprivation. Thus, sexual intercourse was prescribed as treatment in the Middle Ages.

Modern medicine no longer recognises hysteria as a medical condition and is now referred to as sexual dysfunction (the sexual treatments described above are no longer used either). However, there is a condition called mass hysteria that indeed exists.
This is a psychological phenomenon rather than a disease, commonly occurring in closed spaces such as planes or in crowds in a state of panic. When a high tension situation arises, people easily become delusional and believe that they are suffering from a disease. The body reacts to this with actual symptoms such as a psychosomatic rash. These symptoms can be as severe as fevers, vomiting and even paralysis.

If many people are all complaining of similar symptoms and infectious disease seems unlikely, there is an easy way of diagnosing mass hysteria. Tell the patients that they have a rare disease and begin listing the symptoms they complain of. At the end, make up a false symptom (e.g. “shaking of the left hand”). If the patients all suddenly start to shake their left hands (which causes them to panic more), it is likely that their panicking brain is causing the symptoms rather than some pathogen. Symptoms subside after the patients relax.

Interestingly, mass hysteria affects women much more than men.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

ICU Syndrome

ICU stands for intensive care unit and is the place where patients are sent after an operation to stabilise and recover under supervision. ICU patients commonly have a very unique and strange post-operative experience.

ICU syndrome is a type of delirium where the patient experiences severe anxiety, fear, hallucinations or delusions. Although the cause has not been determined, it is likely related to post-op stress, the segregation and loneliness in the ICU room and confusion from coming out of anaesthesia. This is especially the case if an emergency situation led to the surgery being longer than expected or resulted in additional surgery, causing extreme confusion in the patient.

A patient suffering from ICU syndrome tends to be extremely excited and unstable. They may develop intense paranoia or distrust (especially against medical professionals), which can lead to fits or dangerous acts such as pulling out cannulas and lines. A friend or loved one talking calmly to the patient has a great effect in helping the patient overcome the delirium. Therefore, allowing the family to visit to keep the patient company and calm is an effective way to prevent ICU syndrome. However, if the situation spirals out of control, a sedative or anti-psychotic may need to be administered.

A study states that about 25% of patients admitted to the ICU suffer from ICU syndrome. It is one of the most common causes of delirium and any patient can get it (elderly patients are more likely to). Interestingly, there is a theory that medical professionals are more likely to suffer ICU syndrome after an operation.
Nowadays, the term ICU syndrome or ICU psychosis is discouraged and is instead grouped under delirium (which is an actual psychiatric disorder, not just a general term).

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


In medicine, a person’s way of walking is termed gait. By analysing a person’s gait, a trained professional can gain insight into what pathologies the person may be suffering from. For example, just from the way the patient limps, the doctor may discover that the patient has an incurable degenerative brain disease.

The most common gait abnormality is the antalgic gait, or limping due to pain. Most people would have experienced the difficulty of walking with a sprained or broken ankle, muscle ache or knee problems. This is easy to spot as the patient quickly switches to the other feet when leaning on the affected leg due to the pain. Therefore, the side that stays on the ground less than the other is the affected leg.

Sometimes, you can see a person “waddling” along as they swing from one side to the other. This may be a waddling gait, also known as Trendelenburg’s gait, caused by a weakness in the hip muscles that support the pelvic girdle, either due to muscle or nerve damage. As the patient cannot support their weight on the affected side, their pelvis tilts towards the opposite side. To avoid falling over, the patient lurches their body towards the other side, causing them to waddle. Looking at the tilt and lurch gives insight into what side is affected.
Another rather common gait is the steppage gait, where the person lifts one leg higher than the other, while their foot drags on the ground. This is caused by nerve damage leading to the loss of ability to lift the foot up (termed foot drop).

As the brain controls the motor system, damage to the brain also leads to motor dysfunction. A common example is a stroke.
If the stroke damages a significant part of the motor cortex, the patient suffers from hemiparesis/hemiplegia, or weakness/paralysis of one half of the body. This causes the limbs on the affected side to stiffen, as seen by an extended leg pointing inwards and retracted arm. The patient has to swing the affected leg around while they walk as they cannot flex the hip, known as a hemiplegic gait.
If the cerebellum is damaged, balancing becomes an issue. This causes the patient to suffer from ataxia, where they cannot coordinate their movements and are prone to toppling over. These patients tend to sway violently from side to side as they try to walk in a straight line.

Lastly, degenerative brain diseases can also affect gait. There are two main examples.
In Parkinson’s disease, the patient suffers from what is called hypokinesia and bradykinesia – reduced and slow movement. This leads to a shuffling gait where the patient walks slowly by shuffling their feet in small steps. They are also stooped over and are often seen with a pill-rolling tremor of their hands – a cardinal symptom of the disease.
In Huntington’s chorea, the opposite (hyperkinesia) occurs. This causes flailing as the muscles contract in an uncoordinated manner, including both the arms and legs. Ergo, their gait is quite jerky and interrupted by bouts of flailing, termed choreiform gait, but their balance is fine so walking in a straight line is still possible.

Knowledge of these disorders may help one appreciate the suffering a patient walking along the street has to undergo everyday of their life.

(Video demonstrations:

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


A man comes in to a clinic and tells the doctor that he is in great pain.
It hurts if he prods his arm with a finger. The same applies to his leg and his torso.
He says that after looking on the internet, he is sure that he has fibromyalgia syndrome, and asks to be prescribed some painkillers. Also, he is worried that it could be necrotising fasciitis and demands a biopsy and antibiotics.

The doctor, without saying a word, gently grabs his hand, then squeezes his index finger. The man feels a shooting pain and screams in agony.

The diagnosis? A broken finger.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


When people think of the word “flatline”, they immediately visualise a medical crisis where a patient is lying unconscious, with doctors and nurses shouting out medical terminology while administering drugs, all to the suspenseful music and apathetic monotone and single horizontal line on the ECG machine. The doctor then shouts “Clear!” and proceeds to shock the patient with two paddles. This is repeated until some structures appear on the ECG, symbolising that the crisis has been resolved.

Of course this is a scene from a typical medical drama. Television shows, especially medical ones, are notorious for sacrificing medical accuracy for the sake of drama and tension. The “flatline” is the most cliché, repeated mistake made by almost every medical television show ever made.

The proper terminology for a flatline (a colloquial term), is asystole. This means that there is no systole, or contraction of the heart. An ECG (electrocardiogram) measures electrical signals in the heart, and in asystole there is insignificant amounts of electric activity, and the classic QRS complex is not seen. In this state, the heart is not pumping any blood and is electrically silent, meaning that the patient is clinically dead.

When asked how to treat this condition, the majority of people (even medical students) will shout “Shock!” or “Defibrillate!”. Defibrillation is the administering of an electrical shock to try “reboot” the heart, and correct the fibrillation – the chaotic electrical signal interfering with the normal, rhythmic electrical activity. Unfortunately, this is completely wrong yet so often depicted on television and films.
As asystole is a state of no electrical activity, there is no fibrillation to remove, nor is there anything to reset. Defibrillation in this state may even cause harm, causing tissue damage and lowering the chance of survival.

The correct treatment is injecting adrenaline (epinephrine in the U.S.A, atropine may be administered also) and CPR. Unfortunately, asystole is a condition that cannot be reversed, unless the heart somehow restores its own electrical activity. CPR merely keeps the patient’s perfusion going to preserve the organs for a longer time. Ergo, asystole signifies certain death, especially after 5 minutes where the heart will not respond to any drugs or electric shocks. In fact, asystole is one of the conditions required for the certification of a patient’s death.

Another related example of a (potentially fatal) misrepresentation of medicine in the media is the adrenaline injection. As mentioned before, this is the treatment for asystole. However, it is administered intravenously (into a vein) and never directly into the heart as in Pulp Fiction. This is more likely to kill the patient than save them, as the heart muscles could be damaged and delicate coronary arteries may become ruptured.

So why is it that the media continues to depict such blatant errors, that set a “common sense” that affect even medical professionals? This is most likely due to the audience wanting to see a dramatic scene, in a gripping life-or-death situation with drastic, powerful action. For example, the audience would much rather see the use of paddles or a giant needle being stabbed into the patient than seeing continuous CPR with no showy movements.

The next time you watch a medical television show, count how many times the doctors try to defibrillate a flatline.