Medical News Today: Coping with panic disorder

woman looking worried
Panic disorder can be frightening, but it is highly responsive to treatment strategies.
Do you experience sudden attacks of anxiety, fear, and panic? Perhaps your heart races, you feel unable to breathe or think properly, and you sweat. Do these attacks have no obvious trigger? Here are some of the best ways to cope with panic disorder to improve your quality of life.

Panic disorder affects 2 to 3 percent of people in the United States per year, and it is twice as likely to occur in women than in men. Individuals with panic disorder tend to have spontaneous panic attacks, and they therefore become preoccupied with the fear that they may happen again, at any time.

The condition can interfere with many aspects of the person’s life, causing them to avoid work or school and avoid situations wherein they fear a panic attack may occur.

Many people with panic disorder are embarrassed or afraid to tell anyone about what they experience, instead distancing themselves from family and friends who could be supportive.

Panic disorder is highly responsive to treatment. Building a toolbox of self-help strategies can be effective in helping you to manage your symptoms without living in fear. Here are Medical News Today‘s tips for coping with panic disorder.

1. Gain knowledge of panic disorder

The first step in overcoming your panic disorder symptoms is to understand what is happening in your body when you experience an attack. Gathering knowledge about the disorder and working out your underlying triggers can be a starting point for dealing with the condition.

sad man looking out of a window
Learning about anxiety and panic disorder can help you to take control of your condition.

Anxiety is likely to cause the worries and physical feelings you feel as a part of panic disorder. Anxiety is a normal part of the body’s “fight-or-flight” response to uncertainty, feeling unprepared, or trouble, which prepares us to act quickly in the face of danger.

Panic disorder results from misinterpreting sensations linked with the fight-or-flight response as dangerous, which triggers an uncomfortable and often frightening barrage of symptoms – also known as a panic attack.

Living in fear of having a panic attack and therefore avoiding situations that may cause them can often create more situations and more avoidance in a never-ending cycle of fear and anxiety.

Although scary, panic attacks are harmless; they are the body’s alarm system kicking in and are not designed to harm you in any way.

While the response may make you feel as though you are going crazy or dying, you are not. Your body would have the same reaction if you were facing a physical threat, such as coming face to face with a bear.

Once you understand what panic disorder is and why you are experiencing the symptoms, you can begin to learn to cope with them. The goal is not to eliminate the attacks, but to find a way to manage them without fear.

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2. Learn relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques can help to calm your body down, relax your muscles, and help you to think more rationally. Relaxation strategies can also halt the production of stress hormones such as adrenalin, which proves that we are not in any danger.

Calm breathing

When we are anxious, we tend to breathe faster, or even hyperventilate. This is commonly called overbreathing, and it can cause us to feel lightheaded and dizzy, and even more anxious as a result.

woman calm breathing on her bed
Calm breathing can reduce some of the associated sensations of a panic attack.

Calm breathing can help to reduce some of these physical symptoms. Try practicing calm breathing twice per day for at least 5 minutes.

  • Inhale slowly through the nose for 4 seconds.

  • Pause for 1 or 2 seconds.

  • Exhale slowly through your mouth for 4 seconds.

  • Pause for a couple of seconds before taking the next breath.

Calm breathing regulates your intake of oxygen and prevents the dizziness, lightheadedness, and tingling sensations that are connected with overbreathing.

Deep muscle relaxation

The goal of deep muscle relaxation is to learn to eliminate muscular tension and stress. Deep muscle relaxation should be practiced every day as a prevention mechanism, not just when you feel panic and stress.

First, you need to tense particular muscle groups in your body, such as your neck and shoulders. Next, you need to release that tension. Set aside around 15 minutes to complete deep muscle relaxation.

  • Tense the target muscle group.

  • Deep breathe and tense the muscles as much as possible for 5 seconds.

  • Release the tension and exhale.

  • Remain relaxed for 15 seconds before moving on to the next muscle group.

It is important to focus on the difference between how your muscles feel when they are tense and how they feel when relaxed.

3. Challenge your thoughts

The thoughts associated with panic attacks are grouped into two categories: overestimating and catastrophizing. To break the cycle of panic attacks, we first need to change the way that we think and then change our actions.

Challenging overestimating

To challenge your overestimating thoughts, you first need to understand that overestimating thoughts are guesses about what will happen – they are not facts. Next, you need to assess the evidence for and against your thoughts.

woman thinking while holding a notebook
Challenging overestimating and catasphophic thinking can help to break the panic attack cycle.

Some questions that you can ask yourself include:

  • How often have I had this thought during a panic attack?

  • Has it ever actually happened?

  • Next time I have this thought during a panic attack, is it likely to happen?

It can be helpful to remember that your fears are highly unlikely to happen and while you have had these thoughts many times, your fears have not come true.

Challenging catastrophizing

To challenge catastrophic thoughts, imagine the worst possible thing that could happen and then figure out how you would cope.

Some questions that you can ask yourself include:

  • What is the worst that could happen?

  • How bad is it, really?

  • Would it affect my life in a week or a month from now?

  • What actions could I take to cope if it did happen?

  • Has this occurred in the past? Did it make a difference to my life?

It can be useful to realize that some of the things you fear are more of a minor annoyance than something to be distressed about, and there are ways that you can cope with every situation.

When you feel anxious or feel the need to escape a situation, you can challenge your unhelpful thoughts. Writing them down can sometimes help.

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4. Make coping cards

However, it can be tough to challenge unhelpful or scary thoughts in times of severe anxiety, so it might be useful to make coping cards.

Coping cards can feature realistic thoughts about panic attacks to challenge your thinking. You can use an index card or piece of paper, write down some realistic thoughts, and carry them around with you throughout the day.

Everyone’s fears are different and personal, but here are some examples of general coping statements that might help you.

  • This is a hassle, not a horror.

  • I’m falling into a thinking trap.

  • I’ve confused a thought with a fact.

  • People cannot tell that I’m anxious.

  • It won’t last forever.

  • I can handle this.

In addition to reading these cards when you feel anxious, it can be beneficial to read these cards daily to remind yourself to alter your thinking.

5. Face your fears

The final step in coping with panic disorder in the long-term is to face what you fear, including the unpleasant body sensations and situations, places, and activities that you have been avoiding.

Through a process called desensitization, your exaggerated responses to certain triggers can be reduced, so that they no longer activate the same involuntary anxiety reaction.

Facing feared body sensations

People with panic disorder are often sensitive to sensations such as dizziness, blurred vision, and increased heart rate. These sensations need to be brought on repeatedly so that eventually, they no longer make you anxious.

To expose yourself to the panic disorder sensations that you fear, you can do the following exercises.

person running up some steps
Exposing yourself to sensations experienced during a panic attack through exercises can desensitize you to certain triggers.

  • Racing heart: run on the spot for 1 minute.

  • Chest discomfort: run up and down stairs for 1 minute.

  • Breathlessness: breathe deeply and rapidly for 1 minute.

  • Choking sensations: pinch your nostrils and breathe in and out through a small straw for 1 minute.

  • Dizziness: shake your head from side to side for 30 seconds.

  • Blurred vision: stare at a ceiling light for 1 minute and then try to read something.

Start with the sensation that you fear the least and work your way up to the sensation that you fear the most.

Facing feared situations and places

You need to overcome situations, places, and activities that you have been avoiding due to the fear of having panic attacks.

Make a list of situations, places, activities, and objects that you fear in order from the least feared to the most feared. Begin with exposing yourself to the thing that you fear the least and repeatedly engage in that activity until you feel less anxious.

Exposure can be brief at first and then extended. Perhaps you could go to the place with a friend or family member to begin with and then tackle going there on your own.

It is important to plan your exposure exercises to feel in control of the situation. Work out what you are going to do and when you plan to do it.

Facing the things you fear most can sometimes be frightening. Take your time and go at your own pace, and you will eventually overcome anxiety.

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Medical News Today: Regular sauna use could slash men’s hypertension risk

a middle aged man in a sauna
Researchers suggest that regular sauna use could lower men’s risk of high blood pressure.
Sauna bathing may be more than just a relaxing pastime; a new study finds that regular sauna use could almost halve men’s risk of developing high blood pressure.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, occurs when the force of blood that flows through the arteries becomes too high.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 75 million adults in the United States have high blood pressure.

It is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, and in 2014, high blood pressure was a main or contributing cause of death for more than 410,000 people in the U.S.

Following a healthful diet, getting regular exercise, and managing weight are just some of the strategies that can help to prevent or manage high blood pressure.

The new study suggests that for men, adding sauna bathing to their weekly routine may also help to lower the risk of this potentially harmful condition.

Study co-author Dr. Francesco Zaccardi, of the Department of Medicine at the University of Eastern Finland, and colleagues recently reported their findings in the American Journal of Hypertension.

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Sauna bathing and blood pressure

In a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2015, Dr. Zaccardi and colleagues linked regular sauna use with a reduced risk of cardiovascular death.

For their new study, the researchers sought to determine whether a reduction in high blood pressure as a result of sauna use could be an underlying mechanism for their previous results.

To reach their findings, the team analyzed the data of 1,621 men aged 42 to 60 years who were involved in the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study.

Over a median 24.7 years of follow-up, the team monitored the development of high blood pressure among participants, defined as having a blood pressure over 140/90 millimeters of mercury.

The sauna bathing habits of subjects were also assessed, and they were divided into three groups based on their frequency of sauna use: one sauna session per week, two to three sessions each week, and four to seven sessions per week.

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Hypertension risk up to 46 percent lower

During follow-up, a total of 251 men developed high blood pressure. Compared with men who had just one sauna bathing session per week, men who had two to three sessions every week were found to have a 24 percent lower risk of developing high blood pressure.

Also, the hypertension risk was 46 percent lower for men who had four to seven sauna sessions weekly.

The team suggests a number of mechanisms behind their findings. They note that the increase in body temperature during sauna bathing can cause blood vessels to dilate, which can increase blood flow.

Additionally, they explain that regular sauna use can improve the function of the endothelium – the tissue that lines the inside of blood vessels – which can improve blood pressure.

While further studies are now needed to determine how sauna use impacts cardiovascular function, Dr. Zaccardi and team believe that their findings provide some insight.

Regular sauna bathing is associated with reduced risk of hypertension, which may be a mechanism underlying the decreased cardiovascular risk associated with sauna use.”

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Medical News Today: Hemifacial spasm: Symptoms, causes, and treatment

Hemifacial spasm is a condition in which the muscles contract in tics or twitches on one side of the face, usually the left. People do not have control over these spasms, and very often they continue even during sleep.

Hemifacial spasm is usually not painful and not considered a health hazard. In advanced cases, however, the eyes may remain squeezed shut for long enough to become dangerous when driving, for example.

Both men and women can develop these facial twitches, but women, especially middle-aged and older women, develop hemifacial spasm at about twice the rate of men. The condition is also somewhat more common in Asian people.

It is a rare condition, seen in approximately 11 out of 100,000 people.

In this article, we look at different types of hemifacial spasms, the symptoms that can occur, and what can be done about them.


human head silhouette showing facial nerve
Hemifacial spasm causes the muscles on one side of the face to contract.

Hemifacial spasm is different from other nerve and muscle conditions affecting the face because it tends to affect only one side of the face.

However, there are differences between what is considered typical for hemifacial spasm and other forms of the condition.

A study of 215 people being examined for hemifacial spasm found that:

  • 62 percent were most likely caused by a vein putting pressure on the facial nerve

  • 18 percent had tics that mimicked hemifacial spasm but were not actually examples of the disease

  • 11 percent were due to Bell’s Palsy

  • 6 percent were the result of injuries to the facial nerve

  • 2 percent were linked to hereditary causes

Fewer than 1 percent of cases were caused by direct damage to nerves or the brain’s circulatory system


The first sign of hemifacial spasm is usually a twitching in the muscles of the left eyelid. These spasms can be strong enough to pull the eye closed and cause tears to form.

If left untreated, the symptoms of hemifacial spasm can become more severe and affect more and more facial muscles. Twitches can affect the muscles of the mouth and pull it to one side.

Over time, all the muscles on one side of the face can be pulled into a permanent frown. Some individuals may develop spasms on both sides of the face.

Ear pain, a “clicking” in the ear, and changes in hearing can also be symptoms of this condition. Hearing loss also sometimes occurs.

Around 13 percent of people taking part in one study reported a loss of hearing. However, this hearing loss did not appear to relate to how serious their hemifacial spasm symptoms were.

Symptoms of hemifacial spasm usually develop when people are between 40 and 50 years of age.

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Causes and associated conditions

Hemifacial spasm is caused by irritation to the seventh cranial nerve. This nerve is known as the facial nerve and controls the muscles of the face. It also transmits information about the sense of taste from the tongue and sensations in the ear.

The most frequent source of irritation is a small artery pressing on the facial nerve near the brain stem. Other potential causes include:

  • a benign tumor or lesion pressing on the nerve

  • abnormal clusters of blood vessels at birth

  • nerve injury

Hereditary cases of hemifacial spasm have been identified, although they are not common.

In some cases, hemifacial spasm is the first symptom of multiple sclerosis or MS. When people have MS, their immune system attacks the central nervous system, which results in a wide variety of symptoms.

However, this is extremely rare, with scientific studies showing only 1-6 occasions out of several hundred cases in which MS was identified as the cause of a hemifacial spasm.

Although it is rare, doctors still need to check for MS as a possible cause when people under age 40 have a hemifacial spasm.


doctor looking at brain MRI scans
MRI and CT scans can be used to diagnose the cause of facial spasms.

Facial tics are the key sign of hemifacial spasm. Doctors will observe the person and take a medical history, noting how severe the twitches are and how long the person has had them.

The doctor will then use medical imaging tests to find out what is irritating the facial nerve and rule out the possibility of tumors or brain lesions being the cause. These tests may include:

  • magnetic resource imaging (MRI)

  • computed tomography (CT scan)

  • angiography (arteriography)

If imaging tests do not find tumors or lesions, doctors will likely assume that pressure from a blood vessel is causing the hemifacial spasm. These tests cannot always locate the blood vessel that is irritating the facial nerve, however, because the blood vessels are so small.

A hemifacial spasm can be confused with other movement disorders that affect the face. These include facial nerve tics and eyelid spasms. These two conditions affect different areas of the face, and not just one side, which helps doctors accurately diagnose this condition.


To date, researchers have not discovered any ways of preventing hemifacial spasms.

As the spasms are involuntary, the only way to prevent the onset of muscle twitches once the condition develops is through treatment.

Stress, fatigue, and anxiety have been shown to make the condition worse, so people trying to minimize their symptoms may want to try to avoid these triggers, where possible.

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The two main ways to treat hemifacial spasm are through injections or surgery.


Botulinum toxin (Botox) shots are used to paralyze the facial muscles and stop the twitching.

These treatments are helpful for 85 to 95 percent of people. The effects wear off after 3 to 6 months so users will need follow-up treatment on a regular basis.


man having botox injection to face
Botox shots may improve facial twitches for up to 6 months.

Although surgery is more involved and invasive, it also provides more permanent and immediate relief.

In a procedure known as microvascular decompression, a surgeon moves the irritating artery away from the facial nerve and places a pad on the nerve to protect it from future compression.

This surgery is reported to be effective 85 percent of the time. It is considered especially helpful for young people and those in the early stages of this condition.

This procedure does have some risk, with one study finding a 1.5 to 8 percent risk of hearing impairment due to this surgery.

Treatment with medication alone has not been found to be effective for this condition.


Stress caused by this condition’s uncontrollable twitches is one of the most important side effects of hemifacial spasm. However, as people can relieve their symptoms with injections or surgery, the outlook can be good.

It is important for people to seek treatment and take an active role in their care. Their condition is likely to get worse if it is left untreated, so they should be aware of all the treatment options available.

One study found that close to 50 percent of people treated by one team had to learn about the surgical option for hemifacial spasm through their own efforts.

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Medical News Today: Scalp psoriasis: Shampoos, home remedies, and causes

Scalp psoriasis is an immune system disorder that causes scaly, itchy, and often, painful scales on the scalp.

The symptoms can range from mild to severe, with the most serious ones causing baldness if left untreated.

A variety of scalp psoriasis home remedies and shampoos can reduce pain and itching, speed the healing process, and prevent hair loss.

Scalp psoriasis shampoos

tar soap
Tar soap may help to treat psoriasis of the scalp.

People with psoriasis do not necessarily need to use special shop-bought psoriasis shampoos.

It is possible to make psoriasis shampoo at home. Try mixing psoriasis-friendly ingredients, such as apple cider vinegar or tea tree oil, with your usual shampoo for a gentle homemade psoriasis remedy.

The best ingredients for treating scalp psoriasis include:

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is a medication that helps the skin peel. It may also remove psoriasis scales and help the body heal psoriasis patches faster. The higher the percentage of salicylic acid a product contains, the stronger it will be. People should try starting with a relatively weak form of salicylic acid and gradually increasing the strength based on their skin’s reaction.

Other acids

Some other acids, including glycolic acid and lactic acid, can help the skin peel. Much like salicylic acid, they can irritate the skin at higher concentrations. Start slowly, and work your way up to stronger formulas.


Ketoconazole is an antifungal ingredient that can also treat dry, scaly skin. Shampoos containing ketoconazole can help remove both dandruff and psoriasis scales. Because some people with scalp psoriasis also have fungal infections, ketoconazole is an especially useful ingredient that can protect the scalp from painful yeast infections.

Tar soaps and shampoos

Tar soap can help treat psoriasis of all kinds, including scalp psoriasis. Though researchers have spent more time studying coal tar, pine tar soaps and shampoos may also work. It is also possible to wash the scalp with tar soap. The soap has a strong, distinct smell, and can be irritating to skin, however. People should start with a low concentration and work up to more potent formulas but always check with a doctor on the maximum strength to use. 

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Scalp psoriasis home remedies

turmeric root and powder on a board
Studies suggest turmeric may help to reduce the inflammation associated with psoriasis.

The right home remedy can, however, complement medical treatment, improving the appearance of psoriasis lesions.

Home remedies that may help include:

  • Turmeric: Some research on rats suggests that turmeric can reduce the inflammation associated with psoriasis.

  • Apple cider vinegar: This has long been used as a natural disinfectant to prevent infections. It may also ease the pain of psoriasis lesions.

  • Rich oils, such as avocado or coconut oil: These oils may help psoriasis plaques appear less dry and scaly.

  • Tea tree oil: This can be helpful in the treatment of minor psoriasis lesions. Tea tree oil may help the scales disappear, and can ease pain and itching.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Foods containing these acids, such as fish oil and olive oil, may fight inflammation and treat psoriasis. Apply oil directly to the plaques, or eat a diet rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.

  • Oats or colloidal oatmeal: Oats can soothe irritated skin, and may help with very dry psoriasis skin plaques.

What is scalp psoriasis?

Scalp psoriasis
Psoriasis causes patchy, scaly skin and shampoos may help to reduce the itching.

Psoriasis is a group of autoimmune diseases that affect the skin. Autoimmune diseases cause the immune system to overreact. In the case of psoriasis, the over-activity causes skin cells to grow more quickly than normal, creating scales and lesions on the skin. The appearance of the lesions depends on the type of psoriasis.

The only type of psoriasis that affects the scalp, however, is plaque psoriasis.

The most common symptoms of scalp psoriasis include:

  • Scales on the scalp: These can be light and fine, or thick and crusty. The scales may be small or can cover the entire scalp.

  • Psoriasis plaques on other areas of the body: Scales can spread from the scalp, extending to the face or neck. They may also appear on distant parts of the body.

  • Hair changes: In more severe cases, hair loss, changes in hair texture, or patchy hair can develop.

How scalp psoriasis is different from other forms of psoriasis?

Scalp psoriasis is not distinct from other forms of psoriasis. In fact, at least half of people who have psoriasis develop psoriasis plaques on their scalp.

What causes scalp psoriasis?

For most people, something triggers the immune system to flare-up, causing psoriasis patches. Triggers vary from person to person, but some common triggers include:

Some people also notice that their psoriasis gets worse after eating certain foods, or as a result of allergies. Research has not yet conclusively proven that these factors can trigger psoriasis.

However, triggers alone do not cause psoriasis. People without a genetic risk for psoriasis will not develop psoriasis even when they are stressed, injure their skin, or get an infection.

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Scalp psoriasis outlook

While home remedies applied directly to the scalp can improve the appearance of psoriasis, they will not cure the underlying disease. The patches will keep coming back and may get worse with each flare-up.

Without treatment, psoriasis can cause serious medical problems such as heart disease. So people who experience symptoms of psoriasis on the scalp should see a doctor. Numerous treatments can slow the progress of the disease, and help people with psoriasis lead normal, healthy lives.

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Medical News Today: Is pneumonia contagious? Causes and transmission

Pneumonia is an infection of the lung tissue that can make it difficult to breathe due to inflammation, fluid, and pus. Viruses or bacteria, which are contagious, cause most forms of pneumonia.

Not all cases of pneumonia are contagious, however, and the period during which it can spread from one person to another depends on the cause of the infection.

Is pneumonia contagious?

Pneumonia refers to an infection in the lungs caused by certain germs, such as bacteria or viruses. When one person spreads germs that can cause pneumonia to someone else, the recipient can develop a range of respiratory infections, from mild cold symptoms to pneumonia.

A range of factors determine whether pneumonia is contagious:

Type of pneumonia

senior man in bed with the flu
Contagious viruses or bacteria cause most forms of pneumonia.

Most cases of pneumonia are due to the spread of bacteria and viruses. Bacteria are living organisms that respond to antibiotics. Viruses are tiny strands of protein and genetic material that cannot be treated with antibiotics. Both viruses and bacteria are contagious.

Pneumonia often develops after a person has had a different infection, such as a head cold. This makes a person more vulnerable to other types of infections. An infection that develops in the lungs is called pneumonia.

Some organisms are more likely to cause pneumonia than others. One common example is pneumococcal disease, a bacterial infection that can cause ear infections, sinus infections, infections of the brain and blood, and pneumonia.

Another type of bacteria called Mycoplasma pneumoniae can cause other forms of pneumonia. Mycoplasma bacteria are also contagious.

The influenza virus or the flu is a common cause of viral pneumonia. The virus spreads easily from person to person, causing a range of symptoms and conditions.

Less common causes of pneumonia include:

  • inhaling food particles or contents from the intestinal tract

  • some fungi

These forms of pneumonia are not contagious.

Length of infection

In most cases, infections are contagious for a few days before symptoms appear and for a few days after. The exact length of time a person is contagious depends on the type of microorganism causing the infection.

Some forms of pneumonia, such as pneumonia caused by mycoplasma, remain contagious for several weeks. If a person has pneumonia, they should speak to a doctor about how long the infection will be contagious.

Pneumonia treatment

People with bacterial pneumonia will usually be prescribed antibiotics that stop the infection from progressing. Pneumonia will usually stop being contagious a day or two after treatment begins.

A person is also considered contagious during a fever, so it is best to stay home from work or school until the fever is gone.

People who have been vaccinated against infections that can cause pneumonia, such as pneumococcal bacteria, are usually immune to those specific germs. Getting the vaccination can help prevent this type of infection from developing.

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Risk factors

senior hand holding a babies hand
Older people and very young children may have weaker immune systems, which means they may be more likely to get pneumonia.

Although anyone can get pneumonia, some people are at greater risk. Pneumonia occurs when an infection develops within the lungs. It can cause complications with breathing and spread to other parts of the body such as the bloodstream.

People who are more likely to get pneumonia include:

  • very young children and babies whose immune systems are not fully developed

  • older people with weakened immune systems

  • pregnant women

  • people taking medications that suppress the immune system

  • people with diseases that weaken the immune system, such as cancer, HIV, and AIDS

  • people with autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis

  • people with lung and respiratory conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis (CF), and asthma

People at risk of pneumonia need to be especially cautious around people who have recently had pneumonia or another respiratory infection.


Pneumonia is transmitted when germs from the body of someone with pneumonia spread to another person. This can happen in a variety of ways, including:

  • Inhaling the infection. This can occur when a person with pneumonia coughs or sneezes and another person inhales the infected particles. This is more likely between people in close contact with each other, such as parents and children, or in poorly ventilated spaces, such as airplanes.

  • Through the mouth or eyes. This can happen when a person touches a surface that an infected person has coughed or sneezed on. When a person with an infection coughs into their hand and then shakes another person’s hand, the second person can become infected if they touch their mouth or eyes without washing their hands.

Food particles and irritants from the intestinal tract can also cause pneumonia. This is called aspiration pneumonia and can occur when a person accidentally inhales these substances.

Aspiration pneumonia usually happens in people who have trouble swallowing, such as someone having a diagnosis of a stroke or other central nervous system conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease

Fungal pneumonia typically develops when people inhale microscopic particles of fungus from the environment. People with weakened immune systems are more likely to develop this type of pneumonia.

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breaking a cigarette in half
Quitting smoking may help to prevent pneumonia.

A number of strategies can prevent the spread of pneumonia. The single most effective way to prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria is with frequent hand-washing, especially during the colder months.

People should wash their hands before eating, after using the bathroom, after touching someone else, before visiting people vulnerable to pneumonia, and upon returning home after going out in public.

Other strategies to prevent pneumonia include:

  • staying up-to-date on all vaccinations, as well as getting a flu shot and pneumococcal pneumonia vaccination annually

  • quitting smoking, since smoking makes the lungs more vulnerable to infection and affects the body’s immune system

  • managing any chronic medical conditions, especially those that affect the immune system or lungs

  • staying home from school or work when ill or with a fever

Protecting vulnerable people from pneumonia

Most people recover from pneumonia without any lasting effects. In vulnerable people, pneumonia can be fatal. Worldwide, pneumonia accounts for 16 percent of deaths in children under 5. Older people and those with a weakened immune system are also more likely to experience serious complications.

Older people, people with serious illnesses, parents of newborns, and caregivers to sick people should make sure all visitors wash their hands. It is best that people with symptoms of a respiratory illness or fever do not visit a vulnerable person until their symptoms are gone.

Other strategies that can reduce the risk include:

  • washing hands before eating, after touching people, and after going out in public

  • disinfecting all surfaces in the home, particularly if someone has recently been sick

  • keeping up-to-date on all vaccinations, especially any household members around infants who are too young to be vaccinated

  • avoiding locations with inadequate air filtration during cold and flu season

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Pneumonia killed more than 50,000 people in the United States in 2014. Despite this, around two-thirds of older adults do not get the recommended pneumococcal pneumonia vaccination to prevent pneumonia.

Pneumonia can be prevented, particularly in people who do not have chronic lung diseases. By avoiding sick people, staying home when ill, washing hands, and adopting basic health measures, such as getting vaccinated, it is possible to prevent this potentially fatal illness.

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Medical News Today: Period bloating: Seven tips for relief

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Medical News Today: Natural protein may help to prevent blindness

an older man with a poor eye
Researchers have found that a naturally occurring protein helps to protect the retina against glaucoma.
Scientists may be on the brink of a new strategy to prevent blindness, after discovering a naturally occurring protein that protects the eye from one of the leading causes: glaucoma.

Glaucoma is an umbrella term for a number of diseases that damage the optic nerve, which is the cluster of nerve fibers that links the retina – the light-sensitive tissue that lines the back of the eye – to the brain.

Optic nerve damage disrupts the transmission of visual signals to the brain, which can result in vision loss and blindness.

Glaucoma is most commonly caused by a buildup of eye pressure, which can damage the optic nerve. However, the precise mechanisms by which optic nerve damage occurs have been unclear, but researchers from Macquarie University in Australia may have shed some light.

The team found that a protein called neuroserpin plays a key role in retinal health, but that this protein is inactivated in glaucoma. They suggest that their findings may lead to much-needed strategies to prevent and treat the disease.

Lead study author Dr. Vivek Gupta, of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University, and colleagues recently published their results in the journal Scientific Reports.

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Neuroserpin and glaucoma

Neuroserpin is already established as a protein that blocks the activity of an enzyme called plasmin, protecting neurons, or nerve cells, against plasmin-induced damage.

For their study, Dr. Gupta and colleagues set out to determine how neuroserpin and plasmin are affected by glaucoma.

The researchers came to their findings by analyzing retinal cells derived from humans with and without glaucoma, as well as retinas from rat models of the disease.

The analysis revealed that neuroserpin is deactivated in response to oxidative stress, which can be triggered by environmental factors such as air pollution.

Oxidative stress is an imbalance between the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) – which are molecules that can damage cell structures – and the body’s ability to offset their harmful effects.

Interestingly, the researchers found that neuroserpin was inactive in retinal cells from glaucoma patients and in the retinas of glaucoma rat models, which prevented the protein from inhibiting plasmin activity.

“Over a long period of time,” explains Dr. Gupta, “increased enzyme activity gradually digests the eye tissue and promotes cell death causing the adverse effects associated with glaucoma.”

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‘Breakthrough findings’

It is estimated that glaucoma affects around 2.2 million adults aged 40 and older in the United States, and it is one of the country’s leading causes of vision loss and blindness.

There is currently no cure for glaucoma, but there are treatments that can help to slow progression of the disease if it is detected early enough.

Dr. Gupta and team hope that their findings will open the door to new strategies that could help to prevent or treat glaucoma.

“Ophthalmologists and vision scientists have always wondered what damages the optic nerve in the back of the eyes, which is widely observed in glaucoma,” notes study co-author Dr. Mehdi Mirzaei, of the Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences at Macquarie University.

“The breakthrough findings of this study,” he adds, “help us understand the disease mechanism and answer a key question that has eluded scientists for several years.”

This long-term collaborative study has opened up a completely new line of investigation in glaucoma research that will lead to new treatment avenues for the disease.”

Dr. Vivek Gupta

In future studies, the team plans to investigate whether or not antioxidants – which are molecules that help to prevent cell damage caused by ROS – could be an effective treatment for glaucoma.

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Medical News Today: Hammer toe surgery: What to expect

A hammer toe is a potentially painful deformity of the second, third, or fourth toes, where the toe bends upward at the joint, resembling a hammer.

When a hammer toe causes pain, and other treatments fail, surgery may be the only option for correcting the joint.

What is hammer toe?

Hammer toe on both feet
Hammer toe is when the toe bends upwards at the joint.

A hammer toe causes the toe to bend at the first joint, which is called the proximal interphalangeal joint. The problem usually begins with a muscle imbalance.

When a muscle gets too weak, it can put pressure on the tendons of the toe. This can eventually cause the joint to become deformed. People with hammer toe may also develop corns or calluses at the top of the joint from the toe rubbing on poorly fitted shoes.

Wearing ill-fitting or pointy-toed shoes is one of the most common causes of a hammer toe. High heels can also cause the condition, because the heel pushes the front of the foot down, forward, and against the shoe. Over time, the toe muscles grow weaker and are no longer able to straighten the toe.

Certain risk factors increase the likelihood of developing hammer toe. People with unusually long toe bones, a history of toe injuries, and rheumatoid arthritis are more at risk of developing hammer toe.

The type of hammer toe determines treatment options. There are two distinct types:

Flexible hammer toe

In the early stages, the joint is still movable. It is possible to treat flexible hammer toe without surgery, often by simply switching to better shoes.

A person can reduce the symptoms of a flexible hammer toe by avoiding high heels and wearing loose shoes that are at least a half-inch longer than the longest toe.

Toe-strengthening exercises, such as picking items up off the floor with the toes, may also help. Ice packs to reduce pain and swelling can help with pain and inflammation. A doctor may also recommend putting a pad over the joint to prevent it from rubbing against shoes.

Rigid hammer toe

A rigid hammer toe means the joint is no longer movable. Home treatment and better shoes may offer temporary relief from the pain, and a doctor may recommend trying a custom orthotic device before surgery. If that fails, surgery might be the only option.

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Types of hammer toe surgery

surgeons gloves
Surgery for hammer toe may be recommended when there is no other underlying condition.

Hammer toe surgery can be highly effective in people for whom the primary or only issue is hammer toe.

But when an underlying condition such as rheumatoid arthritis causes a hammer toe, doctors may recommend treating that condition first.

Surgical options for hammer toe include:

Tendon transfer

A tendon transfer pulls the toe into the correct position and often works well for a flexible hammer toe.

Tendons attach muscle to bone. During a tendon transfer, the surgeon pulls a tendon near the hammer toe across the top of the joint. This pulls the toe into a straighter position, compensating for muscle weaknesses and improving the toe’s appearance. It should also reduce pain.

Joint resection

Joint resection can help with a fixed hammer toe. For this surgery, a doctor cuts ligaments and tendons to help straighten the toe and may also remove a portion of the bone.

To keep the toe in place, the surgeon may insert temporary pins. These pins can be removed a few weeks after the surgery.


A fusion procedure can reduce the severity of a fixed hammer toe. In this procedure, the surgeon removes portions of the joint to allow bones to grow together. This straightens the toe and can help reduce pain.

A surgeon will cut tendons and ligaments, as well as the ends of the bones. Then, the surgeon will use pins to help keep the joint in place. The pins remain in place to allow the bones to grow together and are removed after the joint has fused.


In rare cases where a person experiences severe pain from a hammer toe and no other treatment works, a podiatrist or orthopedic surgeon might recommend removing the toe. This is called amputation.

A 2005 study of 12 older adults who had toes amputated found that the procedure could alleviate pain, and people were typically very satisfied with surgical outcomes.

Removing a toe can change the way a person balances on their foot. It also permanently changes the foot’s appearance and can be riskier and harder to recover from than some other surgeries.

What to expect

signs outside of an outpatient building
Depending on the type of surgery, hammer toe surgery is often performed on an outpatient basis.

Hammer toe surgery is primarily done on an outpatient basis. This means a person may go home the same day the surgery is performed.

Surgery can often be done with a local anesthetic that only numbs the toe, so the person remains awake during the operation. This can shorten recovery time and avoid the rare complications that sometimes accompany general anesthesia.

Hammer toe surgery can also be done under general anesthesia. People should discuss the risks and benefits of each option.

If a person is squeamish, does not want to see the procedure, or has a phobia of knives or needles, they might prefer general anesthesia. People with a history of bad reactions to general anesthesia or who want the shortest possible recovery time might prefer a local anesthetic.

Before surgery, a doctor will likely perform blood work and ask the person about their medical history. Some people will receive intravenous (IV) medication before or during surgery. An IV can be used to administer anesthesia or to provide a drug that helps a person feel relaxed while awake.

Under local anesthetic, a person will not be able to feel the procedure itself, but they may feel pressure or pulling. The surgery should not hurt.

After surgery, a person will typically feel some pain in the toe and must have someone drive them home. Those who choose general anesthesia may not be allowed to eat before surgery.

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Following surgery, most people experience swelling, which can last up to a year. It may be necessary to wear a special shoe or a shoe insert to support the toe following the procedure.

A person will need to avoid putting weight on the foot for several weeks. Elevating the foot can speed up healing and reduce pain.

As the toe heals, walking can be difficult and painful, so a person may need a cane or crutches for a few weeks. They may also be unable to drive for several weeks.

A few weeks after surgery, the doctor will remove any stitches or pins. The incision will probably leave a scar.

Exercises to improve strength in the toe and foot muscles may help the toe heal. These exercises can also prevent hammer toe from coming back.

A person with a history of hammer toe is at risk of developing it again, even after surgery, so it is important to wear comfortable shoes that fit and to follow a doctor’s recommendations for protecting the joint.


Hammer toe can be unsightly and painful, but it does not always require surgery. Home treatment, including changing shoes and toe exercises, often work.

An orthopedic surgeon or podiatrist can help a person correct the problem before surgery becomes necessary, so anyone experiencing symptoms of hammer toe should speak to their doctor before allowing it to get worse.

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Medical News Today: How does oxytocin control the brain’s social reward circuit?

oxytocin definition
Oxytocin, the “love hormone,” is a key factor of our social abilities, but not much is known about the mechanisms in which this hormone is involved. 
Although several studies have pointed to oxytocin, or the “love hormone,” as an important factor in promoting sociability, the mechanisms behind this remain unknown. Researchers from Stanford University have now looked into how oxytocin regulates the social reward mechanism in the brain.

Oxytocin, which is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone,” is a hormone and neuropeptide – or neurotransmitter, carrying information through the central nervous system – involved in sociability and sexual interaction. It also plays a role in facilitating biological processes related to childbirth, and bonding with the newborn baby.

Oxytocin is mainly produced in a brain region called the paraventricular nucleus, which is located in the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is involved in various metabolic processes, including regulating body temperature, determining states of hunger and thirst, and some social behaviors, such as attachment.

Recently, much has been made of oxytocin’s role in promoting social behaviors, especially with a view to harnessing its potential in managing conditions such as autism, which impairs social interaction.

Medical News Today, for instance, have recently covered a study suggesting that the hormone could improve sociability in some children with autism.

Now, a new study conducted by Dr. Robert Malenka and a team of researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine in California now looks at the mechanism behind the social reward system of the brain, pinpointing oxytocin’s role in this process.

“[D]eficits in social behavior [due to brain disorders such as autism] profoundly affect […] quality of life,” Dr. Malenka told MNT, “and thus it is critical to understand the underlying abnormalities in brain function that cause [them].”

He continued, saying, “The findings in this paper suggest that one factor contributing to social behavior deficits may be abnormal modulation of the brain’s reward circuitry by oxytocin.”

A paper detailing the researchers’ findings has been published in the journal Science.

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The brain’s reward mechanism

In the brain, a region called the ventral tegmental area (VTA) communicates with the nucleus accumbens to regulate the system’s reward response, which is a circuit telling us that certain activities – such as eating, drinking, and sex – are pleasurable.

Thus, they “encourage” us to keep performing them. This reward mechanism is, in part, what ensures that we thrive and keep on reproducing.

The nerve cells that make up the VTA secrete dopamine, another neurotransmitter, which regulates the sensation of pleasure. Dopamine released in the brain makes us feel good when we perform activities correlated with survival, but abnormal levels of this neurotransmitter have also been linked to addiction and substance abuse.

Dr. Malenka and team were interested in understanding why dopamine is sometimes released abnormally, causing undesirable effects, and what other factors are implicated in the complex reward response mechanism of the brain.

Oxytocin impacted dopamine neurons

Since the reward circuit of mice is similar to that of humans, the researchers used the rodent model to study the mechanism’s intricacies in more detail.

In a previous study on mice conducted by Dr. Malenka and colleagues, it became apparent that oxytocin plays an important role in determining social reward responses alongside dopamine. However, it remained unclear exactly how oxytocin impacted the functioning of this circuit.

Now, the researchers reveal that the paraventricular nucleus releases oxytocin in the VTA, which is crucial for promoting prosocial behaviors. Conversely, when the release of oxytocin into the VTA is inhibited, social interaction is impaired.

Dr. Malenka and team noted that oxytocin released in the VTA stimulates a group of neurons called “dopamine neurons,” which function via dopamine signaling. Moreover, while inhibiting the release of oxytocin in that region of the brain did impact sociability negatively, it did not stop the animals’ taste for pleasure-inducing drugs such as cocaine.

This is possibly the first study to confirm the existence of this mechanism, showing that oxytocin directly affects dopamine neurons in the VTA.

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Crucial ‘to understand how oxytocin works’

Dr. Malenka told MNT that the study “use[d] a sophisticated collection of methods to provide a brain mechanism that explains why social interactions are often pleasant and rewarding.”

But he also pointed out that the main limitation it faced was the reliance on the mouse model, which may lead to some inaccuracies.

“The limitations,” he explained, “are that the work was done in mice and therefore, of course, we do not know whether the same mechanisms happen in the human brain (although we think it is likely). We also use very simple behavioral assays in the mice and have to make the assumption that the social interactions we studied were ‘rewarding’.”

In the future, added Dr. Malenka, “We need to figure out experiments to do in people that will allow us to test whether the same mechanisms occur in the human brain and contribute to the good feeling we have when we have pleasant social interactions with our friends.”

Research on the mechanisms behind the reward circuit, and the role that oxytocin plays in them, is important – especially given this hormone’s potential to substantially affect social behavior.

[O]xytocin is being tested as a potential therapeutic agent in the treatment of individuals with autism and other brain disorders which exhibit social behavior deficits. It is therefore important to understand how oxytocin works in the brain to mediate its potential therapeutic effects.”

Dr. Robert Malenka

Going forward, he hopes that his team may be able to delve even deeper into the mysteries of the social reward response in the brain.

“We need to learn more about the detailed molecular mechanisms by which oxytocin modulates reward circuitry and dopamine neuron activity,” he concluded.

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Medical News Today: Retrolisthesis: Types, causes, and symptoms

Retrolisthesis is an uncommon joint dysfunction that occurs when a single vertebra in the back slips backward along or underneath a disc.

Retrolisthesis is the opposite of spondylolisthesis, which occurs when a vertebra slips forward. Retrolisthesis occurs in the neck and shoulder area, known as the cervical spine, or the lower back, known as the lumbar spine.

Retrolisthesis occurs less often in the center area of the spine or the thoracic spine, although it is possible.

Types of retrolisthesis

Model of the vertebrae in the spine.
Retrolisthesis affects the vertebra in the spine.

There are three types of retrolisthesis:

  • Complete retrolisthesis occurs when one vertebra moves backward in relation to the one above and below it.

  • Partial retrolisthesis involves one vertebra moving backward toward either the one above or below it.

  • Staircase retrolisthesis happens when one vertebra moves backward from the ones above it and ahead of the ones below it.


Retrolisthesis happens when the space between the vertebrae decreases. Sometimes this happens if the discs between the vertebrae shrink. Scientists are not entirely sure what makes the discs and space between the vertebrae decrease.

However, they suspect the following factors may cause this shrinkage and lead to retrolisthesis:

  • degenerative spinal problems

  • arthritis

  • congenital disabilities

  • injuries to or near the spine

  • weak abdominal muscles and muscles around the spine

  • blood or bone infections

  • osteoporosis

  • nutritional deficiencies

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Symptoms of retrolisthesis vary from person to person and range from mild to severe. Symptoms may include any combination of the following:

  • back pain

  • discomfort in one specific area of the back

  • limited range of motion

  • pain in the area of dislocation

  • sharp pinching pain

  • a bulge in the spine

Symptoms may extend beyond the back. Some people experience numbness or tingling in some of their extremities, including:

  • buttocks

  • thighs

  • arms

  • hips

  • legs

  • shoulders

  • neck


X-ray of vertebrae in the neck affected by Retrolisthesis. <br>Image credit: James Heilman, MD, (2012, March 26.)</br>
An X-ray may be required to diagnose retrolisthesis.
Image credit: James Heilman, MD, (2012, March 26.)

A doctor will start by reviewing a person’s general health and the symptoms the person is experiencing. After the examination, if a doctor suspects retrolisthesis, they may recommend a lateral X-ray. A lateral X-ray is taken when the person is standing up because it is impossible to identify retrolisthesis if the person is lying down.

A doctor will examine the X-ray, likely drawing several lines on it to compare the positions of the vertebrae and measure how far the vertebrae has slipped out of position. Any slippage over 2 millimeters is considered an indication of retrolisthesis.

The X-ray can also outline any other symptoms that may indicate whether a person has retrolisthesis. Some additional signs may include:

  • hardened arteries around the vertebrae

  • shorter disc heights

  • bone spurs

  • gas trapped between vertebrae

Treatment options

Many different techniques and methods are available to treat retrolisthesis, but these depend on the severity of the retrolisthesis and other areas of concern around the site of the slippage.

Nonsurgical methods may include:

  • physical therapy to help increase strength in the back and abdominal muscles

  • targeted spin strengthening exercises

  • massages designed to improve circulation and help with muscle tone

  • applying heat to the area

  • low-level electric currents (microcurrent therapy) that reduce swelling, pain, and inflammation

  • pain medication, such as ibuprofen or aspirin

Doctors do not usually consider surgery as a treatment option. Surgery is usually only performed to treat retrolisthesis as a last resort if the other non-surgical methods are not working.

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Lifestyle remedies for retrolisthesis

Leafy green vegetables, including cabbage, lettuce, spinach, kale, and greens.
Eating a diet rich in vitamins and minerals may help to treat retrolisthesis. Including green leafy vegetables such as spinach is recommended.

A person with retrolisthesis should talk to their doctor about ways to improve their nutritional intake. Eating nutrient-rich foods can help the body heal naturally over time and promote bone and joint health. Some nutrients and foods to include in a diet include:

  • vitamin A, found in spinach and carrots

  • vitamin C, found in lemons and oranges

  • vitamin D, found in milk, fortified cereals, and bread

  • calcium, found in dairy products and green, leafy vegetables

  • copper, found in peanut butter, nuts, and leafy vegetables

  • zinc, found in nuts and pork

  • proteins, found in nuts, meats, fish, and poultry

In conjunction with dietary changes, a person could consider an exercise routine that may help with recovery. Exercising will improve a person’s flexibility, mobility, and strength and help reduce pain from the slipped disc. Some common exercises that may help include:

  • walking

  • pilates

  • yoga

  • crunches performed on an exercise ball

  • hip exercises

  • back exercises

Diet and exercise have an additional benefit. For people who are overweight or heavier, both exercise and diet can help reduce excess weight. The reduced weight will help alleviate some of the pain as there is less strain put on the back and neck.

Can it be prevented?

Retrolisthesis is not always preventable. For example, a person may experience an injury that causes the back to slip out of alignment. For others, retrolisthesis may be caused by genetic factors.

For most people, following some of these basic tips can help prevent retrolisthesis:

  • maintaining good posture while sitting and standing

  • participating in yoga, pilates, or other core strengthening classes and routines

  • avoiding straining the back with excessive weight

  • stopping smoking, as it can lead to joint damage

  • strengthening the lower core muscles through regular exercise

  • eating a balanced diet


People can prevent retrolisthesis from occurring by taking proper care of their back with regular exercise, a balanced diet, and avoiding activities that may cause injuries.

People diagnosed with retrolisthesis often make a full recovery after following the treatment plan put in place by their doctor. Sometimes, surgery may be required to help the person heal.

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