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7 medical misconceptions

Medical misconceptions, old wives’ tales, fear of the unknown—no matter what you call it, this way of thinking prevents some people from getting the medical care they need. Maybe you’re suffering needlessly because of a widely held belief about your ailment, not realizing old treatments have been improved upon. Here are seven common misconceptions or fears that should be put to rest:

1. Treat back pain with bed rest. Bed rest is no longer recommended for treating back pain. Experts agree that you should stay active and take over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (aspirin, Motrin, Aleve, others) as needed. In most people, lower back pain goes away in about a month. For severe pain or back pain that lasts longer than a month, see your healthcare provider.

2. A bland diet is the best way to treat an ulcer. Are you self-treating a gastric ulcer by sipping on cream or milk or eating a bland diet? That’s no way to manage the problem. New evidence shows that ulcers are most often caused by Helicobacter pylori, a type of bacteria that lives and reproduces in the stomach’s lining and the small intestines, causing inflammation. Ulcers may best be healed with an antibiotic to kill the bacteria and drugs such as acid blockers, antacids or proton pump inhibitors to reduce your digestive system’s acid level.

3. A degenerative disk in the neck is best treated with spinal fusion surgery. Spinal fusion used to be the standard operation to correct a diseased disk in the cervical spine, or neck. But spinal fusion leaves you unable to bend your neck normally after surgery. That’s because the surgeon removes the damaged disk, then fuses together the surrounding vertebrae using bone grafts and metal plates with screws attached.

Fusion corrects the disc problem but raises the risk of damage to neighboring spine segments. New disks allow for more natural neck movement, which reduces the risk of damage to surrounding disks. Talk with your doctor to find out whether you’re a candidate for this newer technology.

4. Exercise isn’t safe for someone in my condition. Exercise is good for you no matter how old you are or what shape you’re in—even if you have a chronic condition such as high blood pressure, arthritis, diabetes or heart disease. In fact, exercise may improve your condition. To start reaping the benefits, talk to your healthcare provider for help finding exercises that are right for you. Start slowly and build up to at least 30 to 60 minutes five days a week.

5. Incontinence can’t be treated. Though bladder control may be embarrassing to talk about, you don’t have to suffer problems in silence. Incontinence isn’t a normal part of aging and can be treated—even cured. Weak or overactive bladder muscles, an enlarged prostate, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and arthritis can all cause long-term bladder control problems.

Your healthcare provider can recommend treatment based on the type of incontinence you have and its severity. Treatment options include Kegel exercises to strengthen pelvic muscles, bladder training—or scheduled urination—and medicine. If your incontinence is more severe, surgery can help.

6. Getting the blues is normal at my age. Occasionally feeling blue is one thing. But a loss of interest in people or activities that lasts more than two weeks is a sign of depression, which can strike at any age. Other symptoms of depression may include fatigue or lethargy, prolonged or excessive worries, weight changes, new aches and pains and feeling hopeless and worthless. If you’re experiencing any of these changes or feelings, don’t accept them as “normal.” Talk with your healthcare provider. Counseling and medication may be needed to get you back on a brighter path.

7. I’ve smoked for so long, quitting won’t do me any good. Quit smoking right now and in 20 minutes or less, your blood pressure and heart rate will start to go down—no matter how many years you’ve been puffing away. Within a few hours your lungs will begin to repair damage, carbon monoxide will leave your bloodstream and your oxygen level will return to normal. Over the next two days your sense of smell will be sharper and food may taste better. Keep it up and within two weeks to three months you may be breathing easier—even if you already have mild to moderate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. By the end of your first year, your risk of heart disease is cut by almost half; your risk of stroke, lung disease and cancer are also reduced. Many tools are available to help you quit smoking. Ask your healthcare provider about the best way for you to kick the habit.