Tag Archives: United States

Straight, No Chaser: Spider Bites – Emergency Room Adventures, Part I


And I thought I was done with stuff biting you for a while… Everything’s bigger in Texas, they say. I recall the first time I saw a banana spider. The thing seemed to be as big as my fist. The only thing more surprising than that was discovering that wasps actually kill and eat spiders. I thought it was supposed to be the other way around… Anyway, I’m typing this immediately after seeing a patient who’s working around the house (or farm or barn as the case is around here), and he put his hand in the woodshed and got bit by a big spider with a red hourglass appearance. Of course, the mother’s excited and wants to know if he’s going to die. The father’s not too concerned because he was just in Missouri a month ago and was bitten by a spider that looked like it had a violin on its back (You can’t make this stuff up!).

Not a day goes by when I don’t see several patients bitten or stung by various insects, including fire ants, mosquitos, bees, wasps, ticks, scorpions and spiders. Usually everyone’s worried about a Staph infection. It’s important to note that only four American species of spiders are known to be dangerous to humans. However, there are only two types of spiders that are worth mentioning as a cause of significant disease.


Black widow spider bites are even more interesting when they’re not eating their mates after procreation (fun fact: North American black widow spiders don’t usually do that; it’s actually the Australian brand that does). They prefer to avoid humans, hanging out in outhouses, garages and the like. They become aggressive when disturbed (particularly if there’s an egg sac around), and if you’ve been bitten, it was by a female. You’ll know it was a black widow because of its red hourglass underside.

The black widow spider injects a powerful nerve toxin into humans. Once bitten, you’ll feel pain, but the real symptoms are likely to start about 20” later. Among other things, this venom produces symptoms that mimic appendicitis. Patients can develop abdominal pain and rigidity, tremor, weakness, chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness and fainting. People at the extremes of age are more at risk for serious complications. Otherwise, reactions are rarely life threatening.


The brown recluse spider is native to the Midwest and Southeastern U.S. You’ll recognize this one by its distinctive violin pattern on its back near where its legs attach. As the name suggests, they’re not at all aggressive and tend to bite only when it’s pressed against its victim’s skin. These spiders like warm and dry environments (think attics, closets, basements, porches, barns and woodpiles).

The Brown recluse also injects a powerful venom – more so than a rattlesnake – who’s lethality is only limited because it’s such a small creature. Its venom rapidly destroys the cells it’s injected into, causing necrosis and tissue death (This is decreased as having a ‘volcano-like’ appearance at the bite site. The lead picture is a demonstration of this.). This destruction has secondary effects in humans, including kidney damage and failure, red blood cell and platelet (your clotting cells) destruction, formation of blood clots, coma and death (rarely). Deaths have only been reported in children less than age seven by the brown recluse.

Here’s your Quick Tip do’s and no’s for Spider Bites:


  • Get to the ER. Not your Doctor’s office. Not the Urgent Care.
  • Elevate the area above your heart.
  • Wash with soap and cool water.
  • Tylenol for pain.
  • Apply ice.


  • No waiting to see if it gets better.
  • No heat.
  • No suction.
  • No cutting away tissue.
  • No tourniquets.

Straight, No Chaser: Back Pain to The Future

Over 40 million Americans suffer from various forms of chronic low back pain. We must work really hard.
Lower back pain is a tricky subject for an emergency physician. The lower back is a source of many life threatening emergencies, which I’ll discuss in a separate post, but for now, as always let’s give you some information to help prevent and address your routine back problems. Let’s start by understanding what the back’s trying to accomplish and how you help or hinder that process by your actions.
Remember the back is the major weight-bearing apparatus of the body and it connects the upper and lower body. It twists, turns, pulls and bends. It contains many vital nerves and muscles.
Let’s point at four situations that produce or exacerbate your back pain:
1. Bad form (born with or otherwise acquired):

  • Spinal problems you were born with can predispose you to and outright cause all manner of back difficulties. Any machine works better if well-built.
  • Obesity puts a significant strain on your back in various ways. Given that most people don’t build up their back muscles, sprains and chronic pain are quite easy when you’re front-loaded. Pregnancy produces a similar strain on your back.

2. Strains
Have you ever heard that it’s easier to lift with your legs than your back? Well, I’d never think so based on the habits of many patients, but it’s true. The lower extremities are much stronger than your back. One of the problems with back strains is once it gets weak, it gets worse. Muscle spasms, pain, more strains and protruding discs all become more likely.
3. Fractures
A broken back is no fun. A weakened back bone (vertebrae) may collapse on its own if diseased (e.g. cancer, age, arthritis, infection), it may become fractured or may be injured with significant trauma. Those with osteoporosis have this happen more commonly. These broken bones may compress spinal nerves. You may even get shorter.
4. Arthritis and Normal Deterioration (aging)
There are other forms of arthritis beside degenerative joint disease (osteoarthritis, which we all get as we age), but the resulting pain, warmth, redness, swelling and limitation in motion all forms lead to reduced function and pain that can continue for the remainder of one’s life.
Here are a few clues to help you hone in on whether your back pain requires emergency attention:

  • Direct blow to your back
  • Fever and new onset back pain
  • Loss of control of your bowel movements or bladder function
  • New onset back pain after age 65
  • Numbness and tingling in both of your legs
  • Nighttime back pain
  • Sudden sexual dysfunction
  • Weakness and/or loss of motion or sensation in your legs
  • Weight loss and new onset back pain
  • Work related back injuries

What can you do to prevent or reduce the pain at home?

  • Learn and practice good posture. Sit when you can. Keep your back straight and shoulders back. When you stand, find something upon which to prop one of your feet, like a stool (think Captain Morgan).


  • Learn the correct way to lift (bend at the knees, not at the back – every time). If you have pain, avoid bending, stretching and reaching if avoidable.
  • Wear low-heeled shoes whenever you can, ladies!
  • Learn how to stretch your back.

LBP exercises

  • Maintain a healthy weight, and exercise to strengthen your abdomen and back (your core)
  • Sleep on your side. Try a pillow between your knees.
  • Walk. Did you know walking is the best (and easiest) exercise for your back?

I’ll be back later (no pun intended) with your questions and more.

Straight, No Chaser: Do You Drink Too Much?

It’s one of those Straight, No Chaser (literally) days.  I haven’t addressed substance abuse much yet (and you know I will), but the problems with most intoxicating substances revolve around the same consideration.  You had the most incredible time and got the most incredible high the first time, and you spend the rest of your life chasing the joy of that first buzz, which for most drugs you’ll never get.  The difference with alcohol abuse is that alcohol is legal and comparatively inexpensive, so you get to keep trying without much fuss (or at least initially).
Let’s set the stage by standardizing some terms:

  • Alcohol intoxication: You’re drunk and under the influence of alcohol.
  • Alcohol abuse: Your drinking habits are unhealthy, resulting in bad consequences (e.g. at work, in your relationships, with the law).
  • Alcohol dependency: You’re physically and/or mentally addicted to alcohol.  You crave liquor and seemingly can’t do without it.  Dependency involves withdrawal symptoms when alcohol is not in your system.  These symptoms may include anxiety, nausea, sweating, jitteriness, shakes and even withdrawal seizures.

Alcoholism is a chronic disease.  Unfortunately, some of us start with a predisposition based on genes and strong influences based on family and cultural considerations.  It is so much more than either a lack of willpower or an inability to quit.  This disease has a predictable course and defined effects on various parts of the body, leading to specific means of death if unaddressed.  Because I’m Straight, No Chaser, I’m not going to deal with the subjective thoughts you offer about whether or not you can ‘handle your liquor’ or whether you believe ‘you can stop anytime you want’.  I’m going to give you some medical data that defines when you’re doing damage to your body.  It’s actually pretty simple.
Are you this guy or gal (keep in mind a standard drink is defined as one 12 ounce can of beer, 1 glass of wine or 1 mixed drink)?

  • Women having more than 3 drinks at one time or more than 7 drinks a week.
  • Men having more than 4 drinks at one time or more than 14 drinks a week.

If so, you’re causing damage.  We’ll get into the specifics at another time.
That’s damage.  Let’s discuss dependency.  Consider the possibility that you may be dependent on alcohol if you have any of these problems over the course of a year:

  • While you’re drinking, you can’t quit or control how much you drink.
  • You have tried to quit drinking or to cut back the amount you drink but can’t.
  • You need to drink more to get a previous effect (This is called ‘tolerance’.).
  • You have withdrawal symptoms (discussed earlier) when you stop.
  • You spend a lot of your time either drinking, recovering from drinking, or giving up other activities so you can drink.
  • You continue to drink even though it harms your relationships and causes physical problems.

So What?
No one is giving up alcohol by reading this, I’m sure.  I haven’t even touched to the harsh realities of alcoholism (yet).  Alcohol is part of the American social fabric.  We live, celebrate and commemorate milestones with it.  It’s glamorized throughout society.  It’s constitutionally approved.  I appreciate that.  In moderation, it’s a good time.  Just understand that it’s not a free ride.  The danger is in the insidious nature of this disease, meaning issues may creep up on you before you ever know what’s about to hit you.  Then we’re having a completely different conversation.
I look forward to any questions or thoughts on the topic.
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Straight No Chaser: Human Bites

I have had weird experiences with humans biting humans, as have most physicians. There are several different types of human bites, which can range from harmless to surgically serious, but as an emergency physician knowing the dangers of the bacteria inhabiting your mouth, I tend to assume the worst until proven otherwise. Your first Quick Tip is to do the same.
Maybe it’s where I’m located, but I tend to see way more ‘fight bites’ than anything else; these specifically refer to someone getting hit in the mouth. It’s always interesting to see the guy who ‘won’ the fight being the one who has to come in for medical treatment. He will have cut his hand on someone’s tooth and really doesn’t think much of it. He just wants the laceration sewn. Little does he realize how concentrated all of the structures (tendons, blood vessels, muscles and bones) are in the hand. He also doesn’t know that they’re confined to a very limited space, and seeding an infection in that space makes things really bad really quick. These guys are very dangerous because they tend to deny ever getting into the fight, ascribing the injury to something else (like punching a tree) – at least until I ask him why a tooth is inside his hand.
Then there’s the “Yes, I was bitten” variety, including activity where the teeth engaged the victim instead of the fist engaging a tooth. Think of the above Tyson vs. Holyfield bite as an example. Sometimes parts get bitten off (fingers, nose, ears and other unmentionables)! Children sometimes need to learn to stop biting as a behavior. Biting is sometimes seen in sexual assault, physical abuse and in self-mutilating behavior or with mentally handicapped individuals.
A third type is the ‘We love too much!’ variety. These may include hickeys (that actually break the skin), folks biting off their hangnails, and individuals who create skin infections by biting their toenails and fingernails. Yes, it happens more than you’d think.
The commonality to all of these scenarios is saliva found its way through the skin. Because of the virulence of those bacteria contained within, an infection will be forthcoming. You’ll know soon enough when the redness, warmth, tenderness and possibly pus from the wound and fever develop.
The easy recommendation to make is anytime a wound involving someone’s mouth breaks your skin, you need to be evaluated. Some wounds are much more dangerous than others. Teeth get dislodged into wounds, hand tendons get cut, bones get broken, and serious infections develop, and in fact these bites require immunization for tetanus. Bottom line: there’s no reason not to get evaluated if you develop those signs of infection I mentioned, if any injury to your hand occurs, or if any breakage of your skin has occurred. You’ll need antibiotics and wound cleaning in all probability, with a tetanus shot if you’re not up to date. If you’re unlucky, you may end up in the operating room.
So here’s your duty if you haven’t successfully avoided the bite:
1) At home, only clean the open wound by running water over the area. Avoid the home remedies, peroxide, alcohol and anything else that burns. You’re making things worse for yourself (those agents cause skin damage more than they’re ‘cleaning’ the area).
2) Apply ice – never directly to the wound, but in a towel. Use for 15 minutes off then 15 minutes on.
3) Retrieve any displaced skin tissue, place it in a bag of cold water, place that bag on ice, and bring it with you. We’ll decide if it’s salvageable.
4) Get in to be evaluated. Be forthcoming about whether or not it was a bite.

Straight, No Chaser: National Minority Organ Donor Awareness Month

August is National Minority Donor Awareness Month, which brings attention to the more than 118,000 people nationwide waiting for lifesaving organ transplants. Of the these men, women and children listed on the national organ transplant waiting list, 56% are minorities. People of most races and ethnicities in the U.S. donate in proportion to their representation in the population. Minorities are disproportionately affected by illnesses, like high blood pressure and diabetes, which can lead to end-stage renal disease and the need for dialysis or a kidney transplant.  This contributes to a disproportionately higher number of minority patients on the national organ transplant waiting list.
Here’s a representation of waiting list candidates by ethnicity:

  • Caucasians: 43.7%
  • African-Americans: 29.6%
  • Hispanics/Latinos: 18.4%
  • Asians: 6.7%
  • Native Americans and Alaska Natives: 1%
  • Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders: 0.5%
  • Multiracial: 0.5%

In 2012, 11,309 minority patients received organ transplants; while there were 2,762 minority deceased donors and 1,711 minority living donors. The wait is long and, sadly, 18 people die every day because the transplant they desperately needed did not come in time.  These facts make the need for more donors from ethnic minority groups critical.  However, minority organ donation often lags due to misinformation about the need and process.
Learn The Facts (most information provided by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
These facts may help you better understand organ, eye, and tissue donation:

  • Fact: Regardless of age or medical history, anyone can sign up to be a donor. The transplant team will determine at an individual’s time of death whether donation is possible.
  • Fact: Most major religions in the United States support organ donation and consider donation as the final act of love and generosity toward others.
  • Fact: If you are sick or injured and admitted to a hospital, the number one priority is to save your life.  Hospitals simply are not in the business of allowing patients to die to harvest their organs.
  • Fact: When matching donor organs to recipients, the computerized matching system considers issues such as the severity of illness, blood type, time spent waiting, other important medical information, and geographic location. The recipient’s financial or celebrity status or race does not figure in.
  • Fact: An open casket funeral is usually possible for organ, eye, and tissue donors. Through the entire donation process, the body is treated with care, respect, and dignity.
  • Fact: There is no cost to donors or their families for organ or tissue donation.
  • Fact: Every state provides access to a donor registry where its residents can indicate their donation decision.
  • Fact: Federal law prohibits buying and selling organs in the U.S. Violators are punishable by prison sentences and fines.
  • Fact: People can recover from comas, but not brain death. Coma and brain death are not the same. Brain death is final.

In order to sign up to be on the donor registry, or to receive more information, visit http://organdonor.gov/becomingdonor/stateregistries.html.
Meet the challenge.  Address the need.

Straight, No Chaser: Your Questions on Treatment of Fire Related Injuries

Questions, you’ve got questions (Why are you so shy about posting them?).  Here we go.  Today, your focus is on the aftermath and treatment of fire related injury.
1)   What does carbon monoxide poisoning look like?

  • Carbon Monoxide (CO) poisoning is very dangerous because the gas is colorless and odorless.  You should suspect that you’re feeling its effect when you’re feeling like you have the flu after perhaps being in a contained area with a motor running or after a fire.  Headache is the most common symptom, and you may also feel nauseated, with malaise (feeling ‘blah’) and fatigue also being common symptoms.

2)   How are the burns treated?

  • Burns cause serious illness.  The thermal component can cause direct damage to your airway.  The toxins contained within (carbon monoxide and cyanide) can kill you independent of any other consideration.  Burns are especially prone to infection, so you don’t want significant skin burns exposed to everything outside of a burnt house while you’re waiting for the ambulance.
  • The burns will be treated according to the severity.  A lot of intravenous fluid, pain management, clear blister removal and infection control will be in order.  Especially serious burns may require a burn unit and skin grafting.

3)   What can I do to treat while waiting for the ambulance?

  • Keep calm, and keep them calm.
  • Be prepared to start CPR if necessary.
  • If any injuries have occurred to the head and neck, lay the person down and don’t move them.
  • Cover any bleeding areas, and apply enough pressure to stop external bleeding.
  • If you have a clean sheet, wrap the person in it.

4)   I know someone who says she was intubated (i.e. had a ‘breathing tube’ placed), and they were feeling fine after a fire.  Why would this have been done?

  • It’s hard to comment on the management of individual cases sight unseen, but most likely soot or burning was noted somewhere inside the airway (e.g. the mouth, nose or oral cavity).  Intubation would have been done to protect and secure the airway before in collapses.  If you wait until the last possible moment, it could be too late.

Straight, No Chaser: The Roof Is On Fire – The Trauma of Residential Fires

As Trauma Week winds down on Straight, No Chaser, we work our way back home, which sadly is the site of most traumatic injuries.  In fact, about 85% of all U.S. fire deaths occur in homes.
The good news is the number of residential fire-related deaths and associated injuries is going down, but that won’t help you if you aren’t aware of how to prevent them and get to safety and cared for in the event a fire occurs in your home.  Let’s address this right off the bat.  You’re most likely to die or be injured from a fire if you’re in one of the following groups, according to the Center for Disease Control (but of course, the fire doesn’t check who’s being burnt):

  • Poor
  • Rural
  • African-American
  • Native American
  • Ages less than 4 or over 65

In the U.S. (2010 data), someone dies every 169 minutes and is injured every 30 minutes, amounting to over 2,500 deaths and over 13,000 injuries (and that’s not including firefighters).  Interestingly, victims aren’t burning to death as much as they are dying from inhalation injuries from smoke and gases (estimated to be the cause of death in between 50-80% of cases).  Speaking of smoke, although cooking is the #1 cause of fires, smoking is the leading cause of fire-related deaths.  Alcohol consumption is a contributing factor in 40% of residential fire deaths.  Most fires occur in the winter.
So What To Do?

  • Install a smoke alarm.  They work.  Over one-third of residential fire deaths occur in homes without alarms.
  • Plan your escape in advance.  Have an exit strategy based on where a fire might break out in your home.
  • Don’t fight the fire.  Nearly ½ of fire related injuries occur from efforts to fight the fire.  Get out of the house.  Of course if you have easy access to an extinguisher, use at your discretion.

Tips on How You’ll Be Treated
Fire-related injuries commonly involve burns and bony injuries (bruises, sprains, fractures), which will be addressed as needed.  However, the most important fire-related injuries involve the airway.  These injuries may be due to the heat’s effects on the airway (burns, swelling and inflammation) and/or the effects of carbon monoxide and/or cyanide (inability to oxygenate).  One important fact for families to realize is the presence of any soot/burns anywhere near or in the mouth or nose needs to be evaluated.  Such signs and symptoms are powerful predictors of potential airways damage and imminent failure.

Straight, No Chaser: Your Questions About Gunshot and Stab Wounds

 Your Top Five Questions:
 1. Why don’t the bullets always get taken out? 
Removal of bullet may cause more damage than leaving them in.  It’s sometimes not worth the effort.
2. What’s with the tubes that go in the chest?
Chest tubes are used to treat a pneumothorax (a collapsed lung).  The problem is there’s air in the space between the lung and the chest wall.  This can interfere with normal breathing and may be life threatening.  The tubes go through the chest wall to release the air from that space, thus allowing re-expansion of the lungs.
3. Why would doctors ever need to slit someone’s throat to save their lives?
That describes either a cricothyrotomy or a tracheostomy, and it’s not ‘slitting’ the throat as much as it’s creating an opening in the airway to permit airflow.  This is usually necessary because of some airway obstruction at the upper throat (foreign body in the throat, etc.) with an inability to clear it.  This procedure is only done to save a life.
4. Why would you die from a wound to the thigh?
Fractures of certain bones and laceration of certain blood vessels are potentially associated with enough blood loss that you could bleed to death.  Infection and blood clots are additional considerations that could be life-threatening.
5. What about gunshot or stab wounds to someone pregnant?
Penetrating trauma to the abdomen is typically less fatal to the mother than to a fetus because the fetus is literally acting as a shield.  In the event any wound has placed the mother’s life at risk or the mother has died from the wound, under certain extreme circumstances, an emergency C-section may be performed to save the baby.

Straight, No Chaser: Concussions Post-Script – A Neurologist's Thoughts

I’d like to welcome and thank my good friend and noted UCLA Neurologist, Dr. Charles Flippen, II to Straight, No Chaser as a contributor to this topic.
His words:
“Everyone should understand the need for both physical and cognitive rest following concussion to allow full recovery (no symptoms, no meds). That may include postponing tests and/or reduced academic workload with graduated “return to play”. Regarding post-concussion syndrome, most patients will recover, never as fast as they would wish. It will usually be stepwise with headache as usually among the last symptoms to resolve.”

Straight, No Chaser: Back From the Dead (aka The One Piece of Medical Equipment I Wish You Had in Your House)

Have you ever heard of an AED (automated external defibrillator)? Well, you’re about to. We’ve promoted CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) a ton over the years, but recent recommendations place added emphasis on trying to literally shock patients back into consciousness. Thus, let’s start at the literal end of life, when you actually have a chance to save a life.
There are a couple of abnormal heart rhythms that suggest death is imminent. They’re called ventricular fibrillation (V-Fib) and pulseless ventricular tachycardia (V-tach). In these conditions, the heart is more or less quivering (V-Fib) or pumping too fast (V-tach) instead of giving off an optimal forceful beat. Effective beats pump blood (containing oxygen and nutrients) around the body you need to not only function, but to survive. Now, those two bad rhythms I just mentioned are unsustainable indefinitely, because without effective blood flow, vital organs such as the brain, lungs and ultimately the heart itself will give out within minutes, and that’s why you go ‘flat-line’ (aka asystole, aka dead, or soon to be). Even if you do survive, every minute these organs are starved of blood leads to damage that could be irreparable.
AEDs are designed to shock/stimulate the heart out of these deadly rhythms and back into an effective pumping state when possible (AEDs do not work for asystole, the flat-line rhythm.). The beauty of these machines is they are simple (and have been proven to be useable by untrained 6th graders), small/portable and if you pay attention, they’re all over the place. And even better: all AEDs used in the US talk to you and tell you what to do! My goal for you is simple: even if you can’t have one, know about them so you will think to use them if the opportunity presents.
Here are some frequently asked questions and answers regarding usage:
1) How do you connect it? AEDs have pads that need to be placed on the chest while staying attached to the machine. Instructions embedded on the machine will show you exactly where.
2) How does it know what to do? AEDs will detect the heart’s underlying rhythm and inform you if a shock is needed. Some machines will deliver it automatically; others will require you to press a button.
3) Are there limitations based on age? AEDs may safely be used on children and used by children. Appropriately sized pads must be used for kids.
4) Can I be sued for using this if the person dies? Users are protected by Good Samaritan Laws in case something (else) bad happens.
5) Should I own one? How expensive is it? I’d recommend one if you can easily afford it. I’d also recommend incurring the expense if you have a high-risk profile for heart disease and potentially fatal heart rhythms. This should be discussed with your physician. I paid $300 for mine, but you can pay up to $1100 for no good reason.
6) How long is it good for? You must be sure to stay up to date on the expiration dates on the components, most importantly the battery.
7) What should I do if the victim gets ‘back to normal’ after using an AED? Still call 911 and get to the Emergency Department for further investigation.
Of course the biggest question is “Do they work?” I’ll reference a study that reviewed effectiveness over two years of usage in Chicago’s Heart Start program, in which 22 individuals developed potentially fatal abnormal rhythms. 18 of these people met criteria to be treated by an AED. Of these 18, 11 survived. Of these eleven, bystanders with no prior training treated six.
I have an AED in my house and transport it in my family’s car because after all, I’m the one most likely to need it and benefit from it anyway (and I could shock myself, assuming I was still conscious). If it’s within your means, consider doing the same. It’s all about giving you the best opportunity to survive.

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