The Week That Wasn't: Popcorn-Linked Infection, Minimum Wage, Altruistic Pain Relief

Ellie Kincaid


January 10, 2020

You may have recently seen articles about a man who needed open-heart surgery after eating popcorn and contracting a life-threatening infection, a link between increasing minimum wage and decreasing suicide rates, and the pain-relieving effects of altruism. Here's why you didn't see them on Medscape Medical News.

Eating Popcorn Leads to Infection, Open-Heart Surgery

A British man contracted an infection after using the cap of pen, a toothpick, a piece of wire, and a metal nail to try to pry out a piece of popcorn that was stuck in his teeth, according to news reports. The infection spread to his heart and damaged its valves, which required a 7-hour surgery to repair. After surgery, the man recovered and was discharged home from the hospital.

Dramatic stories such as this one grab attention for the same reason traffic backs up when there's an accident on the other side of the highway. The man's infection may have had a unique source, but it's not clear what's newsworthy about the medical management his condition required. With reports readily available in the mainstream media, we didn't think we needed to focus our clinician readers' attention on this case.

Increasing Minimum Wage Linked to Decreasing Suicides

Minimum wage increases appear to be linked to reduced suicide rates in people with a high school education or less, particularly during times of high unemployment, researchers from Emory University write in a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. The researchers analyzed state-level minimum hourly wages, unemployment statistics, and suicide rates by month from 1990 to 2015 and found that a $1 increase in the minimum wage corresponded to a 3.4% to 5.9% reduction in the suicide rate. They estimate that increasing the minimum wage by $1 could have prevented 27,550 suicides during the period they studied.

Research such as this that attempts to quantify the health effects of public policies is important and illuminating. However, this observational study doesn't offer actionable information for those clinicians who are not in a position to change their state's minimum wage, so we didn't cover it. For patients in need of support, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline's toll-free number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Altruism as Pain Relief

When people act in ways that benefit others, it reduces their experience of pain, researchers propose in an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The scientists ran several experiments comparing the pain scores of participants who performed altruistic acts such as donating blood, giving away money, and cleaning shared spaces. Across the studies, including one that enrolled cancer patients with chronic pain, "we found convergent evidence in support of the notion that performing altruistic behaviors relieves physical pain," they write.

The idea that science supports altruism as pain relief is, appropriately, a feel-good story. But the experiment most relevant for clinicians, the one involving cancer patients with chronic pain who were asked to clean common areas of the hospital and prepare nutrition plans for fellow patients, was small (64 participants) and short (7 days). It may indeed be good for people with cancer to perform acts of service for others, but this study doesn't add much evidence to support such a prescription.

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