News, Culture & Society

Breakthrough could help identify patients who may be at risk of potentially fatal complication 

A tiny balloon may be able to help doctors identify heart surgery patients who could be at risk of a potentially fatal complication.

The tube-shaped balloon — which is just a couple of centimetres in length — is placed in the chest at the end of bypass surgery and other types of major heart procedures.

Surgeons insert a thin wire through the chest with the deflated balloon on the end and, once in place inside the pericardial sac (the fibrous sac the heart sits in), the balloon is inflated.

The other end of the wire is attached to a monitor, which measures changes in pressure on the balloon.

A tiny balloon may be able to help doctors identify heart surgery patients who could be at risk of a potentially fatal complication (stock image)

The tube-shaped balloon ¿ which is just a couple of centimetres in length ¿ is placed in the chest at the end of bypass surgery and other types of major heart procedures

The tube-shaped balloon — which is just a couple of centimetres in length — is placed in the chest at the end of bypass surgery and other types of major heart procedures

The idea is that monitoring this pressure for several days as the patient recovers in hospital will provide an early warning of a potentially fatal condition called cardiac tamponade.

This occurs when the pericardial sac fills up with blood or fluid that’s leaked from blood vessels damaged during heart surgery.

As the sac fills with liquid, it compresses the heart, stopping it beating properly and drastically reducing blood flow to other vital organs.

Did you know?

Opening a window may be more effective at reducing infection risk from Covid-19 and flu viruses than first thought. 

Swiss scientists have found that outdoor air tends to be much more acidic, due to fumes from cars and boilers. 

This doesn’t just physically clear virus particles, but can also neutralise flu and Covid viruses in the air. 

The condition usually develops within 48 hours of a major heart procedure. It is regarded as a medical emergency because, if it’s not spotted quickly, it can trigger a fatal cardiac arrest.

Although a rare condition, it is responsible for 30 per cent of deaths from complications arising from heart surgery.

The experimental balloon device, developed by heart surgeon Hazem Fallouh, from Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, could be a solution.

In addition to the balloon, a second wire with a special sensor on the end of it — called a Doppler probe — is inserted into the same area.

This then bounces high-frequency soundwaves off red blood cells in the heart to get a picture of how well blood is flowing through arteries.

It also acts as an alert to medics by signalling when blood flow is stalling — indicating that there might be a problem.

Both devices — the balloon and the probe — are easily withdrawn once the patient is in the clear, usually after 48 hours.

Patients being monitored with this new device have to remain in hospital, and may have to stay longer than is usual.

However, if it means cardiac tamponade can be identified early, when it can be treated, it would be a huge step forward.

A sudden drop in blood pressure is currently one of only a few warning signs of cardiac tamponade.

If doctors spot it quickly, they can treat it by draining off the excess fluid.

However, the condition can easily be mistaken for other conditions such as congestive heart failure — where the heart is not pumping properly.

If it’s not spotted in time, cardiac tamponade often results in emergency open-heart surgery to ease the pressure on the heart — a procedure with a mortality rate of up to 70 per cent.

The Pericardial Device to monitor Cardiac output and diagnose Tamponade (PerDeCT) is currently a prototype.

However, its developers were recently awarded a £500,000 grant by Innovate UK, a public body that finances groundbreaking technologies, and it is due to undergo testing at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in the next year or so.

Professor Gerard Stansby, an honorary consultant vascular surgeon at Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: ‘This sounds potentially very useful, as long as it doesn’t have adverse effects such as bleeding or infection.’

Scientists at Florida Atlantic University have developed a belt that monitors patients with heart failure — where the heart is unable to pump blood around the body properly.

The device, which is worn around the chest, measures heart rate, the amount of fluid in the lungs and electrical activity in the heart — which increases as heart failure worsens. The idea is that patients would wear the ‘belt’ as they go about their daily lives — the results would be sent wirelessly to their doctor to flag up changes in their condition.

Researchers hope the belt —which is still being developed — will reduce hospital admissions for worsening heart failure, according to the journal Scientific Reports.

Drinking coffee boosts your bones… if you’re a woman

Drinking coffee may make young women’s bones stronger. New research, based on 7,000 people aged between 20 and 50, found the more coffee women in their 30s drank, the greater their bone density.

The opposite was true for men in their 40s, the study in the journal Frontiers in Endocrinology found.

Bone density naturally declines with age — taking steps to reduce this decline is important because low bone density is linked to osteoporosis, a progressive disease that increases the risk of fractures.

The researchers from Nanjing University in China say caffeine may have a beneficial effect on calcium production — but why only women benefited is unclear.

High-intensity ultrasound waves could treat acne scars. Around 60 men and women are taking part in a clinical trial, at Laser & Skin Surgery Center in New York, and other centres — it’s thought that soundwaves reduce the effects of inflammation, helping the skin to recover. 

Bulking up with weights can cut migraine attacks

Lifting weights regularly can help reduce the number of migraine attacks.

Researchers at Stanford University in the U.S. analysed results from 21 previous trials into the benefits of exercise, and concluded that strength training (e.g. lifting weights, press-ups and squats) was the most effective, followed by aerobic exercises (e.g. running and skipping), reported the Journal of Headache and Pain.

Just how exercise helps reduce migraine attacks is unclear, but one theory is that by strengthening muscles in the neck, shoulders and upper limbs, this reduces pain signals involved in migraine.

Clock watching

How to harness the power of your bodyclock. This week: Brush your teeth first thing

As Dr Ben Atkins, a dentist and trustee of the dental charity Oral Health Foundation, explains, brushing at this point can wear away the enamel (he brushes his teeth ¿as soon as I get out of bed¿

As Dr Ben Atkins, a dentist and trustee of the dental charity Oral Health Foundation, explains, brushing at this point can wear away the enamel (he brushes his teeth ‘as soon as I get out of bed’

You may have been taught to brush twice daily — after breakfast and before bed — but doing so straight after breakfast is not the best time, because acidity from food and drink can soften the enamel, the hard outer layer that protects teeth from decay.

As Dr Ben Atkins, a dentist and trustee of the dental charity Oral Health Foundation, explains, brushing at this point can wear away the enamel (he brushes his teeth ‘as soon as I get out of bed’, he says).

You could wait half an hour to give the acidic substances time to wash away naturally, but that may not be convenient.

So brush before breakfast — and if you want that clean-mouth feel after eating, try chewing sugar-free gum, which will stimulate saliva production, which will then wash away any food debris and restore the pH in the mouth so it is less acidic.

Life lab

The story behind unusual medical discoveries. This week: Gut transit times and the microbiome

A study published in the journal Gut Microbiota in 2021 found that people with longer gut transit times ¿ i.e. the time it takes food to go in one end and come out the other ¿ had lower bacterial diversity and higher levels of ¿bad¿ bacteria in their gut compared to faster poopers

A study published in the journal Gut Microbiota in 2021 found that people with longer gut transit times — i.e. the time it takes food to go in one end and come out the other — had lower bacterial diversity and higher levels of ‘bad’ bacteria in their gut compared to faster poopers

A study published in the journal Gut Microbiota in 2021 found that people with longer gut transit times — i.e. the time it takes food to go in one end and come out the other — had lower bacterial diversity and higher levels of ‘bad’ bacteria in their gut compared to faster poopers.

Trial participants were asked to eat muffins made with blue food colouring — and to record how long it took before they produced a blue poo. The average transit time was 28 hours.

‘We’re now trying to find out why transit time and bacteria types are linked,’ says Dr Sarah Berry, a reader in nutritional science at King’s College London. ‘It might just be that longer transit times are more likely in people who eat a diet that’s low in fibre-rich plants and high in ultra-processed food, which results in less food for good bacteria to eat.’

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