Medicine isn’t pretty, but sometimes it’s even less pretty than normal. Here are seven such procedures and treatments that aren’t for the squeamish, but hey, they seem to actually work.
For those of you suffering from an infection caused by the bacteria Clostridium difficile (“C. diff”), there’s a last-ditch procedure that has had a success rate of 85 to 95%: infusing someone else’s feces into your body. C. diff infection arises from stays in hospitals and other health care facilities, where the use of antibiotics may destroy good bacteria in a patient’s colon, allowing the C. diff to flourish. The infection typically causes severe stomach problems like diarrhea and colitis (swelling of the colon), plus blood poisoning and even death. A fecal transplant restores normal bowel function by repopulating the colon with healthy bacteria. The donated feces — typically provided by a close family member — are blended, filtered, and fed through a tube into the patient’s nose down to the stomach. Several teaspoons are all that’s needed for complete recovery within a few weeks.
In 2004, maggots became the first live animals approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a “medical device,” having proven effective in treating wounds that are having difficulty healing. Since ancient times, maggots have been used to treat wounds around the world, from the Mayans of Central America to the Aborigines of Australia and the hill people of Burma. In the US, they were used widely in medicine until the 1940s, when penicillin became the antibiotic of choice. However, since the 1990s, with the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, maggots have become a more viable option. Fly larvae are effective because they liquefy and consume dead tissue, kill harmful bacteria and stimulate healing. During therapy, maggots are placed in the wound and covered in a cage or pouch to keep them contained within the infected area for two days. Several two-day sessions may be needed for the wound to heal completely.
Shortly after maggots were approved by the FDA, leeches likewise were recognized as a medical device. (Both are even covered by some insurance agencies.) Like maggots, leeches have long been used in medicine, having been documented in ancient Greek texts as a means of bloodletting. Today, medical leeches are used differently — not to extract significant amounts of blood, but rather to prevent blood from coagulating during surgery (leech saliva contains a blood thinner called hirudin) and to promote circulation of blood during operations to reattach body parts. Additionally, leeches suck out excess blood, deliver a local anesthetic to the wound and produce an antibiotic that kills dangerous bacteria. Leeches are typically used one at a time and replaced as they become full and drop off (every 20 minutes or so) for 24 to 48 hours, and then less frequently for another few days if needed.
Natural Orifice Surgery
Natural orifice surgery involves operating on or removing an abdominal organ through an existing body orifice — typically the mouth or the vagina. The technique avoids unsightly external scarring, requires shorter post-op healing time and may cause less pain in the long run. In 2007, the first operation removing a gall bladder through a patient’s mouth was performed, followed by a gall bladder removal through a vagina and a kidney removal through a vagina. Despite the natural orifice concept, a small incision might need to be made at the patient’s navel in order to insert an endoscopic camera used to guide surgeons as they remove the organ through the orifice. Unlike traditional surgery, which requires a five- or six-inch abdominal incision and two to three days of hospitalization, natural orifice patients can be at home within 24 hours.
Horse Urine (and People Urine, Too)
Premarin is a hormone replacement drug that has been on the market since 1942 and has been used by millions of post-menopausal women to treat hot flashes, burning, itching and vaginal dryness, as well as to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. However, most people don’t realize that the name Premarin is, like the pill itself, derived from “pregnant mare urine.” The urine is gathered on hundreds of “PMU farms” that house pregnant horses (and are the target of protests from animal rights activists), and the extracted estrogen is used in the manufacture of Premarin pills, creams, injections, patches and vaginal rings. Ironically, post-menopausal women in turn are the source of urine used in the production of the fertility drug ingredient Menotropin, used in medicines like Pergonal, Menopur, Menogon, Repronex and HMG Massone.
Intestinal Worm Therapy
Intestinal worm therapy (AKA helminthic therapy) involves the introduction of parasitic worms — either hookworms or whipworms — into the body to treat a range of diseases, from inflammatory bowel disease to asthma to multiple sclerosis, lupus, arthritis, hay fever and various allergies. The theory behind the treatment is that because of increased focus on hygiene in modern society, a lack of exposure to such parasites increases susceptibility to diseases by preventing the growth of the body’s immune system. By introducing the worms, doctors jump-start patients’ immune systems, enabling them to more readily fight illness. The worms are either taken orally (whipworms) or applied using a bandage (hookworms) that allows them to crawl into the patient’s body through the skin. Whipworms live on average from 18 to 30 months in the body, while hookworms live three to seven years. While worm therapy has yet to gain widespread acceptance in the US, various studies and trial results have shown it to be helpful in battling various illnesses. Although there is some risk involved with the introduction of intestinal worms into the body, they are generally deemed safe in the small numbers used in helminthic therapy.
Tooth Implant in the Eye
A surgical procedure pioneered in England to bring sight to the blind involves implanting a tooth in the patient’s eye socket. During the procedure, a section of the patient’s tooth is removed and chiseled to hold a man-made lens and anchor it in place. It’s covered with a section of skin grafted from the inside of the patient’s cheek and used in conjunction with a grafted cornea. A living tooth is needed because of the chance that the eye could reject a plastic implant.