Monday, 11 October 2010

Runaround (again)

Firstly I’d just like to apologise for not posting for while, I’ve been busy sorting out my master’s thesis which, thankfully, is all done now so I can get back on with this! So to start here’s an interesting article enquiring as to whether exercise or painkillers are better to alleviate the pelvic pain symptoms associated with endometriosis. Initially it seems like a question common sense could answer, but in fact the study was comparing the effectiveness of painkillers in women who have regular exercise and those who don’t. Their conclusion was that women who exercise regularly find painkillers less effective than those who do not exercise regularly.

Unfortunately I can’t get access to the full article which is tricky as I can’t find out which painkillers each group was taking. After all, if the group who did not exercise were talking stronger painkillers then this might skew the results. Another problem with this study is the sample size. For the analysis of the effectiveness of painkillers the authors only used 14 women who exercised and 33 who didn’t. Although a statistical difference was found between the two groups, we have to think with such small numbers of women, was it really a fair comparison?

It is also important to consider that women with endometriosis who exercise regularly may be able to do so because they experience less severe symptoms than those who may be unable to exercise regularly. There are also socio-economic factors to consider, for example women who are being supported by their partners would have more time to exercise compared to those who have to work full time.

Without having all the details to hand it is hard to judge however, is it right for the authors to conclude “....that taking painkillers might be less effective among endometriosis patients performing regular daily sport activities” with such a small study? What if women with endometriosis who exercise regularly decide not to take painkillers on the basis of this finding when they could have helped? As a scientist you have to be very careful what you say and how you say it, especially if what you say can be fed through, what I like to call, the ‘Out of Context Generator’. This is a machine owned by all media outlets, especially newspapers. Basically, facts are fed into this machine and then sensationalist headlines are spat out that help increase revenue for said media outlet. If we were to feed the above article into this machine we would get a headline something like “Exercise found to be better than Drugs for Painful Womb Condition” (because journalists so love to refer to endometriosis as such).

Unscrupulous pedlars of alternative medicines could use this as ‘proof’ that natural regimes are preferential to drugs forced upon us by evil, faceless pharmaceutical companies. Do you see how a relatively innocuous statement can get out of hand? What can we do to avoid such attempts to confuse us? As Socrates once said “The greatest danger to both the individual and society is the suspension of critical thought ”. Basically don’t be afraid to question whatever you read, wherever you read it, but of course I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t say, don’t take my word for it.

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