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Medieval ‘bloodletting’ could ease gout pain

Could the medieval cure of bloodletting be a treatment for gout? A review of studies involving nearly 1,000 people suggests the ancient therapy, largely abandoned in modern medical practice, could in fact be nearly 40 per cent more effective at treating the condition than the painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs currently used.

Gout is estimated to affect more than 2 million people in the UK — with cases rising, due to diet and lifestyle changes. But some researchers now believe bloodletting may ease symptoms, by lowering inflammation and levels of uric acid, a known cause of gout.

Uric acid is produced by the body when it breaks down purines, compounds that occur naturally in the body but are also found in red meat, some seafood and shellfish. High blood levels of uric acid lead urate crystals to form in the joints, causing intense pain and swelling.

Gout is estimated to affect more than 2 million people in the UK — with cases rising, due to diet and lifestyle changes

Gout, a form of arthritis, typically affects the big toe because it is furthest from the heart — uric acid is more likely to turn into crystals at the extremities where body temperature is coolest.

Gout attacks are usually treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) such as ibuprofen, or with colchicine.

Bloodletting was used for many ailments at the cutting edge of medicine for thousands of years, both literally and metaphorically.

A vein would be cut and blood drained into a cup, with site and quantity left up to the practitioner. Leeches were used for a less severe form of bloodletting.

It was based on the ‘humoral’ theory, in which the human body consisted of four key humours, or liquids — blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. Imbalances in these, which could be corrected by bloodletting, were believed to be responsible for many illnesses.

By the late 1800s new technologies had sidelined bloodletting in Western medicine.

But now new research by scientists from Sichuan Integrative Medicine Hospital, China, found bloodletting was 37 per cent more effective in treating gout than medicines such as colchicine and NSAIDs — and patients’ pain was also reduced by 13 per cent.

Gout attacks are usually treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) such as ibuprofen, or with colchicine

Gout attacks are usually treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) such as ibuprofen, or with colchicine

The controversial review, published in the current edition of Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice examined data from 12 separate studies involving a total of 894 patients.

Blood was taken from the patients using syringes and different types of acupuncture needles — with the amount taken varying.

In some trials less than 10ml of blood was taken, in others more. Bloodletting in these trials was also reported to cause 36 per cent fewer side-effects.

Researchers found it lowered uric acid levels by the same amount as standard medicine, but was more effective at cutting blood levels of an inflammatory compound, C-reactive protein (CRP) — found by previous research to stick to uric acid crystals, triggering the inflammation seen in gout.

‘Bloodletting is both effective and safe in treating gout and can especially ease acute severe pain and reduce CRP inflammatory levels in patients, with a lower risk of evoking adverse reactions,’ the researchers say.

‘Bloodletting was better than Western medicine in ameliorating symptoms of gout.’

However, Professor Philip Conaghan, director of the Leeds University Institute of Rheumatic and Musculoskeletal Medicine, said: ‘This new review summarised previous studies, and many had design flaws.’

Controlling uric acid levels effectively is key, he says, adding that current therapies for treating acute gout are ‘highly effective’ in most patients ‘if used appropriately’.

Meditation boosts immunity

Meditation is known to be good for mental health, but now scientists have shown how it boosts the immune system, too.

Researchers from Florida University in the U.S. tested blood from 106 people before and after an eight-day retreat with ten hours of meditation each day.

Using DNA analysis of the blood samples, they found 220 genes related to the immune system were activated by the practice, 68 of them involved in switching on immune defences.

It is thought meditation alters the way cells behave, including the response to inflammation, reports the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers will now see if shorter periods of meditation also help.

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Hum — it may curb viral infections. Researchers from MNR Dental Hospital, India, said in The Journal of Contemporary Dental Practice that research had found low buzzing can increase nitric oxide levels in sinuses which can stop viruses attaching to the respiratory tract. 

‘Bionic’ eye to tackle sight loss

Scientists have developed a bionic eye to help with sight loss caused by problems with the retina, the light-sensitive area at the back of the eye.

In people with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder, the cells in the retina progressively die off.

The device consists of a pair of glasses with a camera which sends signals wirelessly to an implant under the ear and on to the brain, bypassing damaged retina cells. There’s also a stimulator attached to the eye that tricks the remaining cells into receiving light.

After successful tests on sheep, the device’s inventors, from Sydney University, Australia, hope it could soon be trialled in humans.


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