Jan. 28, 2009— -- Take care the next time you try to diagnose yourself out of a book or on a Web site, particularly if you're a nervous cellist.
On Tuesday, doctors announced that a condition cited in medical journals for 34 years was actually just a hoax.
The bogus condition, called "cello scrotum," was described as raw and swollen loins of men who play their cellos a tad too long, or too vigorously. The malady has been cited in several papers discussing other musical ailments, such as "fiddler's neck," finger dermatitis and permanent muscle twitches.
Only now have Drs. Elaine Murphy and John M. Murphy of England revealed that a letter they wrote in the prestigious British Medical Journal describing "cello scrotum" was a joke.
"Perhaps after 34 years it's time for us to confess that we invented cello scrotum," the Murphys wrote in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal. "Anyone who has ever watched a cello being played would realize the physical impossibility of our claim. Somewhat to our astonishment, the letter was published."
The Murphys said they were responding to an earlier article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) about another unusual condition, the so-called "guitar nipple."
The 1974 article, titled "Guitar Nipple" and attributed to a Dr. Curtis, read: "SIR, -- I have recently seen three patients with traumatic mastitis of one breast. These were all girls aged between 8 and 10 and the mastitis consisted of a slightly inflamed cystic swelling about the base of the nipple. Questioning revealed that all three were learning to play the classical guitar, which requires close attention to the position of the instrument in relation to the body."
The article went on to say that the irritation caused by pressing against the soundbox cleared up once the girls stopped playing the guitar.
The Murphys think the "guitar nipple" letter was also a prank.
"The following Christmas we sent a card to Dr. Curtis of guitar nipple fame, only to discover that he knew nothing about it -- another joke we suspect," the Murphys wrote.
Yet, doctors took it seriously. One doctor wrote to the BMJ, wondering if the girls with "guitar nipple" should get new guitar lessons because the description in the original medical report described them as playing left-handed guitar for a right-handed person.
Another doctor wrote in to ask, "Did Dr. J. M. Murphy's patient hold his cello in an unorthodox way?"
Could a False Condition Hoax Happen Today?
Of course, someone might have asked a cellist in all these years. Roger Shell of New York City has been playing the cello for 40 years and said he never even heard of "cello scrotum."
"I can't see how that's possible, actually," said Shell.
At most, Shell said it's possible for cellists to chafe the inside of their thighs, "if you're wearing shorts," he said. "There are really no other contact points other than the chest."
In fact, Shell does have the so-called "cellist's chest."
"I do have a small area of skin on my chest that's maybe a little calloused, but it's never been irritated," he said.
After the Murphy's prank was revealed, the current deputy editor of the BMJ said he wasn't too miffed.
"I think people could spoof us," said Dr. Tony Delamothe, deputy editor of the BMJ.
But, Delamothe thought it would be unlikely doctors could fool people with anecdotes or try to pass off a false study today.
"In the old days people used to turn in single case reports more," explained Delamothe, adding that, today, the BMJ looks for larger studies with more evidence to publish. "People are very turned off by single case reports now," he said.
If something were to turn up as fabricated, Delamothe said the BMJ resorts to a retraction, which can seriously hurt a researcher's career.
"It's a real big thing to print a retraction," said Delamothe. "It's very rare. I think it's probably [done] about once every five years."
Besides, Delamothe said doctors have a chance to get notoriety by entering oddball research into their annual Christmas edition.
"We tend to be jokey at Christmas," said Delamothe, citing an example this year of research on the physics of head banging. "They're true (at Christmas), but it's a long way from the traditional fare of medical journals.
"We get enough genuine wacky stuff without making it up," he said.