Jan. 29, 2008 -- Right now — in bathrooms, bedrooms or at the kitchen sink — people across the world are trying rather unusual home remedies to cure their pain.
In Mexico, some people rub potato halves on their foreheads for headaches. In Central America, blowing cigar smoke on a sufferer's back is believed to bring them pain relief. And in the United States, rubbing cobwebs into cuts is believed to stop bleeding and pain.
The following is a list, compiled by pain management doctors, of the most extreme measures people have taken to cure pain — sometimes hitting the jackpot and sometimes just hitting their heads.
The primal instinct to get rid of pain can lead to desperate actions, including fighting fire with fire.
"I've personally taken care of patients that hit their head with objects — hammers, boards et cetera — or literally pounded their head on the wall," said Dr. Tim Collins, assistant professor of neurology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.
"One patient had her brother tap her on the head with a hammer, because she felt it made her headache better," said Collins. "Fortunately, he didn't hit her very hard."
Perhaps the hammers and boards stunned people into temporarily forgetting their pain, but Collins said it didn't cure their headaches.
Another case of fighting fire with fire — quite literally — is the people who take a hot poker to the sensitive areas, said Dr. Alan Brewer, director of the pain management program at the University of Colorado in Denver.
"They take these hot iron rods, and just poke it into the skin," said Brewer, of the approach, which, he said, he saw firsthand in Kuwait. But he added that this strategy is also practiced among some groups of Native Americans.
"Obviously, their pain goes away while it's burning, so they forget it for a while and pay attention to the new pain," he said.
Yet, more commonly, people in pain are likely to seek out soothing objects instead of construction tools. Doctors in Pittsburgh had a patient who swore by Irish Spring brand soap. Except he didn't wash with it, he slept with it.
"[He put] Irish Spring brand soap under the sheet and over the mattress cover to treat arthritis pain of the knee," said Dr. Doris Cope, vice president of the anesthesiology department at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
"The patient swore that the Irish Spring -- and no other brand -- helped his arthritic knee pain a lot," said Cope.
Good Logic, Bad Logic
When people try out home remedies concocted by others, they tend to look for more logical treatments than sleeping with soap. But a bit of reasoning in the wrong direction can lead to many more problems.
Ear candling is one so-called logical treatment that is making a comeback in holistic medicine circles.
Ear candles are exactly what they sound like -- candles you stick in your ear. Light the far end, and supposedly the smoke or burning wick creates a weak vacuum in the ear, drawing out earwax and other impurities that cause pain.
But while a burning explosion in a tunnel will suck out the available oxygen, hot air on the end of a cone-shaped candle doesn't suck out anything, according to the popular medical myth debunking site Quackwatch.com, run by Dr. Stephen Barrett.
And it might be a good thing that it doesn't work; according to the Quackwatch site, a vacuum strong enough to pull out ear wax would also rupture the eardrum.
So if hot candle wax doesn't work, what about olive oil?
Dr. William Zempsky, an associate professor at the Connecticut Children's Medical Center, said he has seen patients who try to treat earaches with the coating properties of olive oil -- just squeeze a few drops of olive oil at room temperature to ease the pain.
But this actually works, said Zempsky. In fact, studies have shown olive oil is more effective than some anesthetizing ear drops.
"It's a pretty good way of decreasing ear pain," said Zempsky.
Products for Sale
Natural remedies -- like the olive oil trick -- are all the rage now.
"One out of three people are seeking alternative care -- including some physicians," said Dr. Joseph Shurman, chairman of pain management at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Cali.
"There are all kinds of herbs, homeopathic remedies being used in the home," said Shurman.
Along with the natural plants, is a growing side business of selling cures from natural metals. One big business to treat arthritis pain involves magnets, which supposedly draw blood to the inflamed site to heal the joint. But while magnets are not likely the key to pain relief, they do have natural properties that may be more pain than they are worth.
"Magnets for arthritis and bone pain placed under beds or in hip pockets resulted in one patient demagnetizing all his credit cards," said Cope.
More serious damage can be done when patients try to drink metals.
"I have had one patient taking a known toxin for his complaints -- a silver compound that has been repeatedly outlawed by the FDA," said Collins.
Side effects from using colloidal silver products may include seizures, kidney damage, stomach distress, headaches, fatigue and skin irritation, according to the U.S. National Institutes for Health. And some consuming the concoction have even been known to turn themselves blue -- the result of a buildup of the substance in the skin.
Emotions at Stake
"Very often the scenario is that they're looking for a magic wand," said Dave Patterson, a psychologist who treats chronic pain patients at the University of Washington's Department of Rehabilitation Medicine in Seattle. "They tend to seek medical solutions when there are no medical solutions."
While emotions and thoughts can drive some people into harmful scams, the same feelings can help heal them.
Clinical studies have shown that people's belief about a treatment can actually improve their condition. It's called the placebo effect -- when a person's pain symptoms get better even on a sugar pill.
"It can be higher than 35 percent," said Shurman, who notes that PET imaging of the brain have shown similar effects in the brain whether a patient takes a narcotic or a sugar pill.
"Even though ethically we cannot prescribe placebos -- we'd have to tell the patient -- placebos are very effective," said Shurman.