Friday, April 25, 2014

The Moon's Pull

Last week, nature graced us with a lunar eclipse. Having never experienced one, I was all atingle as I anticipated this exciting cosmic event. I set my internal alarm clock for 3:45 a.m., when the eclipse would be at its peak, woke up right on the button and headed outside. I stood in the middle of my dark street, bleary-eyed in my pajamas, and stared up at a beautiful dusky moon.

It was a perfect night for it. The sky was clear and cool, rimmed in faint stars that paled in comparison to that full, glowing satellite. Its face had taken on a reddish hue, as if the entire surface had been dusted with cinnamon. It was a remarkable sight that has stuck with me all week.

It got me thinking about the mythical effects the moon supposedly has on the human body. We’ve all heard the tales… A full moon purportedly ushers in a range of bodily reactions, from erratic behavior to seizures. It’s even rumored to manipulate menstrual cycles! As a new paramedic, I remember the warnings from seasoned personnel about the nutjobs that would emerge when the moon was full (although it seemed my fellow firefighters were far more afflicted than any of our patients). So I thought we’d have some fun sampling these old wives’ tales and hopefully, laying some of them to rest.

The lunar myths are tied to its gravitational pull. Folks believe that since the moon regulates the tides on earth, it should have similar effects on the human body since, like the oceans, we are composed mostly of water. The only problem with this theory is, the last time I checked, the oceans were a lot bigger. And besides, the tides go in and out despite the phase of the moon. Yes, a full moon can cause subtle surges in tides, but the same effect happens with a new moon. It’s not so much the phase of the moon as it is the lining up of the sun, earth, and moon, which occurs during both the full and new moons. So rest easy… your bloating should not intensify as the moon grows full.

As for the moon’s effect on seizures, epilepsy is a disorder characterized by unpredictable seizures that affects people of all ages. Caused by erratic electrical events within the brain, rumor has it these events intensify under a full moon. But, epileptics -  have no fear. When scientists reviewed the frequency of seizures over a three-year period, they found no increase when the moon was full. Quite the contrary: more seizures occurred during the last quarter, so if you’re going to stockpile your Dilantin, do it for when the moon wanes.

And what about menstrual manipulation? Apparently, someone (gotta be a man) came up with the
idea that the full moon somehow influenced menstrual cycles, I guess since they both occur about once a month. However, few women flow with as much regularity as the lunar cycle and, if the moon actually did influence menses, then in my mind it should cause a world-wide synchronicity resulting in global premenstrual syndrome – aka, Armageddon!! God help us!

Emergency room visits have been rumored to increase beneath a full moon, as have animal attacks. Could it be these events are related? Seems only natural that if the critters are biting, the ERs would be buzzing. But once again, science has dispelled this myth. There appears to be no increase in ER visits when the moon is full. As for critter bites, a British study back in 2001 found twice as many animal bites when the moon was full, but studies elsewhere fail to corroborate their findings. Perhaps it’s just a “Brit” thing. Have you seen the size of the rats in London??

What about the psychological effects of the full moon? The poor moon is blamed for everything from depression, to suicide, to psychotic outbursts. In fact, the word “lunacy” comes from Luna, the Roman Goddess of the Moon, and the condition was believed to be linked to the moon's phases.

We can thank Pliny the Elder for that one. Although Pliny was a deft naturalist, he missed the mark when he claimed that, since the full moon caused an unusually heavy morning dew, it must have the same effect on the brain. Pliny believed it was the “unnaturally moist” brain that led to the erratic behavior. I’m no Einstein, but it seems logical that a moist brain beats a dry brain, any day. Alas, old Pliny never got to see his theory falsified; he was among the tens of thousands killed when Mount Vesuvius blew.

The only bodily effects possibly attributable to a full moon are subtle changes in sleep patterns. Studies hint that people may stay up later on nights of the full moon, which can subsequently interfere with normal moods and temperaments. This might certainly have been the case among our distant ancestors, who were more in tune and reliant upon the light of the moon than us city dwellers in our climate-controlled apartments.

And no discussion of the full moon is complete without the myth-of-all-moon-myths, werewolves. According to the website, “Mythical Creatures Guide,” the belief in the transformative properties of the full moon and its resultant “manwolf” is widespread throughout Europe and comes in a variety of tall tales. Some werewolves were the result of witchcraft. Some were branded at birth by being born with a caul over their faces. And some were simply randy corpses who returned from the dead for conjugal visits with their widows.

However, just as our search for Bigfoot keeps coming up empty, so have our quests to locate a bona fide werewolf. But it sure is fun to imagine.

Picture this: The bright, full moon slowly rises in the east as the metamorphosis begins. The man’s canines elongate, his fingers morph into claws, he starts to drool as dense hair sprouts from every inch of his body…

Wait a minute – I think I dated this guy!

Have a great week and please share the blog!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Brainy Bondage

Last week, we discussed the fantastical flexibility of the newborn’s skull and how cultures around the world have taken advantage of its malleability by intentionally modifying it into strange and mesmerizing shapes.

This week, however, we are exploring the opposite end of the spectrum: what happens when your brain is locked inside a box that cannot yield. Let me tell you up front – it ain’t good. 

By the time a child is around three years of age, the fontanels, or soft spots that reside between the
plates of the skull, have vanished as the sutures joining the plates fused. Those sutures will continue to meld throughout your lifetime and if you live long enough, may completely disappear (what we in the skeletal biz call “obliterate”).  

But having a network of fused plates encasing that most essential organ, the brain, is a double-edged sword. Let’s discuss the pros and cons of this brainy box

The skull offers protection to the delicate tissues that compose the brain. Without the skull, you’d most likely suffer brain damage before lunchtime, for without the protective cover of the cranium, all it would take is a subtle knock on the noggin to cause permanent damage. There’s a reason all vertebrates sport a helmet at the northernmost region of their spinal apparatus. Whether you’re a tiger or a toad, an elephant or an anteater, protection is a must and the cranium does a pretty fair job of buffering our brains. 

But even with a skull, damage happens. A trip and a fall or a crash on your bike is all it takes to cause a head injury and one of the scariest injuries you can suffer is closed head trauma. 

Closed head trauma is just as it sounds: the brain is damaged even though the skull is intact. The reason these types of injuries are so serious is that the brain, like any other soft tissue in the body, tends to bleed and swell when damaged. And whether the brain bleeds, swells, or both, there’s no place for any of it to go. It is entrapped within an unyielding bony container and without immediate intervention, the pressure intensifies, neurochemicals are released, causing further damage, and basic functions (like breathing and heart rate) are stifled as the brainstem is choked off.

So what’s a neurologist to do?? There are drugs to reduce the swelling, which are usually the first line of treatment, but if the swelling persists, they must take further action.

Rev up the bone saw; it’s time to make a window. 

Craniotomy is just as daunting as it sounds. A flap of bone is removed, which allows a bit of breathing room for the swollen brain. The piece of bone is usually popped in the freezer so that, when the brain stops swelling and returns to normal, the bony patch can be replaced and the patient restored (one hopes) to normal function, or at least something close. 

The most amazing aspect of craniotomy is that folks have been performing it long before modern medicine came on the scene. It turns out we’ve been cutting into each other’s skulls for thousands of years. 

"Trepanning" is from the Greek, meaning to "bore" or "auger," which is most appropriate, since practitioners over seven thousand years ago were drilling into the heads of their friends and neighbors. Also known as "trephination," the procedure was originally accomplished using flint scrapers, knives and even shell; that is until the advent of metallurgy. Obsidian blades were also effective, as were bow drills. We can sometimes determine the tool used by the evidence left on the skull. A round hole with beveled edges? Probably scraped. Square hole with straight lines? Probably a blade. A beautiful little circle? Bet on a drill. Not only can we decipher the tool used, but by noting healing (remodeling) to the periphery of the wounds, we can also determine if the individual survived the procedure, which, surprisingly, many did.

The ancients may have been trepanning for some of the same reasons we perform craniotomies, since some of the skulls show evidence of traumatic injury. Was trepanation done solely for medical reasons? Probably not. There may have been a ceremonial component to it, perhaps to release bad spirits or correct psychotic behavior. Perhaps it was to obtain bone amulets, since it was performed on the dead as well as the living and nothing says "fashion" like sporting a bit of cranial bling. 

Whatever the reason, we know that people around the world for thousands of years were dabbling in neurosurgery long before there were neurosurgeons. Just as early explorers wondered what lay beyond the horizon, the human body also afforded a landscape worth exploring. And what better place to start than a hole in the head?

Here's a short video on trepanned Peruvian skulls.

Have a great week and I'll catch you next Friday.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Our Versatile Vaults

When I was six years old, my mother produced her fourth child. Expecting another girl, we waited in anticipation for the emergence of our new sister. Alas, it was not to be. Out popped a strange crinkled raisin with even stranger crinkled raisins between his legs. Our baby brother, Andy, was born.

Not only did he have a strange set of genitalia and a disgusting little stump of a belly button, he also sported an intriguing soft spot at the top of his head. Since I was just a tyke with little understanding of cranial morphology, I couldn’t quite grasp that the flexible area at the top of his head, which bulged whenever he screamed and strained, was a necessary component of skull anatomy.

The soft spot, or fontanel, is the area at the top of the newborn’s head where the cranial bones have yet to join. There are actually six primary fontanels that reside between the bones of the skull; the largest is on top and usually fuses at around eighteen months.

Let’s pretend, for a moment, you were born without them. Without the fontanels, you’d probably still be dangling from your mother’s vagina, since there’s no way that giant fetal head is going to make it out without a flexible skull. Through the magic of evolution, nature has prepared us bigheaded humans for the tight squeeze that is the birth canal by postponing the joining of the cranial sutures until after we’ve cleared the lady parts.

The cranial vault is not a singular bone. It is actually composed of a number of bones that are joined via sutures. The sutures fuse over time, becoming completely obliterated, if you’re lucky enough to reach old age.

So now that we understand the basic mechanics of the vault, let’s explore some of the clever ways we humans have manipulated our malleable melons. Welcome to the magical, mystical world of cranial deformation.

Beauty comes in a variety of forms and is highly dependent upon culture - what one group finds attractive may repulse an outsider (nipple rings make me want to hurl). When it comes to adornment or decoration, the human body provides a veritable canvas upon which to express ourselves, and humans have been modifying and mutilating themselves for tens of thousands of years.

Because a newborn’s head is so flexible, it doesn’t take much to bend and shape it into a variety of strange yet eye-catching forms. For the ultimate in head-shape handiwork, let’s travel back a few thousand years to Central America and take a quick peek at the Maya, for they were rather deft at deformation. (Yes, I can spew these catchy phrases all damn day!)

The Maya were a sophisticated culture that thrived in Mesoamerica for thousands of years before experiencing a rapid decline, although their ancestors can still be found around the Yucatan. They were a learned society, with a written language and math, and they also built some pretty impressive pyramids.
And when they weren’t calculating their celestial calendars or playing their oh-so-serious ball games (the losers got death), they were sculpting their newborns’ heads into a variety of beautiful shapes and sizes.

According to the Spanish (who upon seeing such oddly shaped heads took a break from pillaging to ask a few questions), the reason the Maya constructed such elaborate shapes was to appear more handsome before their gods. They also made it easier to carry stuff. The broad, flattened variety made an ideal shelf for shuttling baskets from market to home. Very practical folks, the Maya.

Deformation was achieved via two basic techniques, which could be altered for more variation. The head could be bound with tight wrappings and the location of the binding would determine the direction and shape of the deformation. The other technique employed specially designed cradles, which squeezed the head in a desired direction. Either method could not have made for a happy baby. Imagine your young'un strapped to a board for hours on end. The crying must have been relentless. No wonder the Maya were big on human sacrifice.

Deformed heads were considered beautiful by the Maya; an indication of rank among a sea of common noggins. And many of these skulls have been recovered among the archaeological ruins of this most impressive civilization. But the Maya weren’t the only folks to dabble in deformation. Evidence of intentionally modified heads has been found on nearly every continent going back tens of thousands of years.

Sadly, the custom has fallen out of favor, for what I would have given to strap my baby brother down,  sit back with a bowl of popcorn, and watch his little head elongate into cone-headed perfection.

Here's some further reading on Mayan cranial deformation. See you next week.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Happy Birthday to Me

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BODY BLOG!! You are one year old this week. If you were a human, you would be graduating to the realm of "toddler," you'd have tripled your birth weight, and you'd be learning how to grasp objects. But since you're just a blog, we'll focus on the lesser achievements you've made over the past twelve months.

A year ago, I didn't even know what a blog was. I assumed they were merely outlets for people to spew their unadulterated opinions across the web; kinda' like Fox News. But over a cup of coffee with a genealogist friend of mine, I learned that blogs could be educational outlets for writers, so I delved right in. I learned all I could about design and content and then I started writing, and for every week since, Ive tried to bring you interesting tidbits about these amazing vessels we inhabit.
It was slow going at first. I had recently set up a Facebook page to help market my books, but didn't really understand the subtleties of social media. But once I caught on, so did the blog, and my readership has improved by leaps and bounds.

But why write about the body, you ask. Well, I've nursed a fascination with the human body my entire life, from its underlying framework of bones and muscles to the intricacies of our internal organs. I knew I would end up in some realm of the medical field. I had no idea it would be as a firefighter/paramedic, nor that I would transition later on to bioarchaeology. But you know what they say... life is a journey, and mine has taken many a strange detour.
Writing about the human body holds endless possibilities. The wonders and mysteries of the human form are limitless, and I felt my unique perspective - as a paramedic, archaeologist, and anthropologist - would provide numerous angles from which to analyze and contemplate.

And you, as readers, guide my subject matter. I see what topics stimulate, which posts get shared the most and the farthest, and I take that into consideration when planning my subjects. But I don't let these things dictate. If I did, I'd end up writing about nothing but the lady parts, since they seem to be THE hot topic among Google searches.
Birthdays are a time for reflection. When my birthday rolls around (which they seem to do with ever-increasing frequency), I can't help but stop and reflect on the year past and the year ahead. A compulsive planner, I use my birthday to evaluate current life strategies - to make adjustments to those that aren't producing and set new objectives for the coming year. Yes, I approach life with a robotic precision (I would have made an awesome drill sergeant), but it's this fanatical foresight that has enabled me to achieve more than I ever imagined I could.

Is it genetic? Part of it, I'm sure, is written in my DNA, for this compulsiveness spills over into other realms - Im a raging germophobe and excruciatingly neat. But part of it has developed through life experience. I wasn't always so driven. Everything changed with the death of my mother.
She was only fifty-two when she died of cancer. I was twenty-three, with my whole life ahead of me, but as I got older and realized how quickly the years fly by and that, like her, I could go at an early age, I entered into a subconscious game of beat-the-clock. Suddenly, I was an adult, racing towards thirty, and although I had an awesome position on one of the best fire departments in the state, it wasn't enough. I stayed in school throughout my career with Orlando Fire Department, knocking out degrees one by one in a race to achieve. And when I hit my ten-year mark and was vested in my pension, I realized if I was ever going to try out another profession, I had better get to it. I wasnt getting any younger.

On a whim, I applied and was accepted into grad school at Florida State, which was fortunate, for when my career at OFD took a sudden turn, I was prepared. I retired, packed up my life, and headed to FSU, embarking on a whole new career, a whole new life.
I've been really fortunate. All of my compulsive planning, my demented discipline, and tireless work ethic have paid off in big ways. I've achieved more than I ever dreamed I would when I was a young firefighter riding backwards on an engine.

So as I reflect over the past year of writing The Body Blog, the moral of my story is this: set goals and work hard. If a dorky firefighter like me can go on to achieve a PhD, anything is possible.
I think my mom would be proud.

Thanks so much for reading,
and please keep sharing!