For many of us, the body is like an old car. It’s always surprising us with its new sounds, sensations, and unexpected breakdowns. And it’s constantly providing material for investigation. Yes, the human body is a fascinating, unpredictable machine. At the same time, medicine is a fickle art and an imperfect science. For answers to medical questions, there’s always WebMD and “Doctor” Google, and an abundance – perhaps over abundance - of other online health information and advice. But when it comes right down to it, most of us still prefer the face-to-face interaction and in-person opinion of a health professional. Typically we think this interaction occurs in the sterile environment of a physician’s exam room, or perhaps on the phone with an advice nurse. But often, medical opinions are garnered in very unusual places – at dinner parties, the gym, and via Facebook messages.
Health professionals are accustomed to fielding medical questions from family, friends and acquaintances. I certainly am and I’m often intrigued by the curiosities these questions unearth. Have any of the following questions occurred to you? (The answers are adapted from my favorite cocktail party reference, Why Do Men Have Nipples by Mark Leyner and Billy Goldberg, M.D.).
“Is it bad to crack your knuckles?” (Not in moderation, and it sure is satisfying.)
“Can hot tubs make you infertile? (Probably not, and wouldn’t they still be worth it?)
“Should you put steak on a black eye?” (An ice pack is just as good unless you are really set on attracting attention from turkey vultures.)
“Can you swallow your tongue?” (No, you’d have to chop it out first.)
These types of questions are nearly universally interesting (the fact that Nipples was a best seller is sufficient evidence of this) and usually harmless banter. But, if you’re searching for real medical advice from that doctor friend you bump into at Whole Foods, here are some helpful guidelines for inquiry.
1) Know her specialty. A urologist is very different from a neurologist, even though the names sound quite similar (just ask any hospital operator). Thus, you should try to avoid asking a neurologist about a flaccidity issue that is better suited for the talents of a urologist.
2) Know the limits. Lighthearted questions are fine, and most physicians don’t mind them. Many of us enjoy telling our war stories in return. I certainly do. By the way, did I ever tell you about the time that…But, unless you truly think you are in danger, it is best not to casually invoke certain words or phrases. “Heh doc, it sorta feels like there is a big ol’ elephant on my chest,” and “You know, this really is by far the worst headache of my life,” are statements that may cause your physician friend to have a major change in sphincter tone.
3) Know when to stop. If M.D.-in-line-at-the-post-office says “You should really talk to your doctor about that,” what she’s really saying is either [A] that sounds serious and I don’t want to be responsible for you not getting it checked out in a formal medical setting or [B] That is totally out of my realm of expertise, I have no idea what you are talking about, and I’d much rather talk about Buster Posey.
Can you curl your tongue? Does your daughter seem to have bionic hearing? Will your cousin’s eleventh toe be genetically passed on to his offspring? Are you convinced 99-year-old Aunt Mabel is still ticking because she drinks a thimble of scotch with breakfast? These are interesting, fun conversations that physicians often like to engage in. But a party is not the best place to talk about potentially serious medical issues. That said, I look forward to seeing you at the neighborhood holiday cookie exchange. Then I can tell you about that time…