Pediatric Newsletter #12: genetic vs environmental causes for autism and more

November 23, 2014  |  General  |  No Comments

Here is the latest of my more or less monthly newsletter on pediatric topics. In it I highlight and comment on new research, news stories, or anything else about children’s health that I think will interest parents. If you want to subscribe to it and get it in the form of an email each month there is a sign-up form at the very bottom of my home page.

How much of autism is caused by genetic factors and how much by environmental ones?

Autism is always very much in the news. There is intense controversy about its cause, although the bottom line is that we don’t know. It also appears to be increasing, although we don’t know how much of this is what we call ascertainment bias — finding something more when we look for it more. A big part of the controversy is the relative contributions of genetic vs environmental factors.

recent study from Sweden offers useful information about this. The study was immense, over two million children, far larger than any previous ones.

The bottom line is there appears to be more or less a 50/50 split in the relative contributions of nature and nurture. That is, genetics contributes 50% of the causative factors, environment 50%. This is an important finding. Overall, a child with a sibling with autism has a 10-fold higher chance for getting the disorder than does a child without such a family history. The middle part of the article is dense, but the first part and the conclusions are understandable by non-physicians.

Those laundry detergent pods can be quite dangerous for your toddler

recent study examined how common poisoning or other injuries are from those convenient laundry detergent pods. I have seen one severe case myself, causing breathing problems bad enough to land the child on a mechanical ventilator. This study surveyed poison control centers to find out the extent of the problem. It is not trivial.

Between 2012 and 2013 there were over 17,000 exposures to these things, a 600% increase from the previous year, indicating how popular they have become. I can see why they are popular — I use them myself. It’s a lot easier to toss one of them into the wash than pour out detergent from a bottle.

But that convenience comes at a potential risk. Toddlers put anything and everything into their mouths, and the alluring, brightly colored pods quickly dissolve when wet. The survey revealed that there were over a hundred children who required emergency placement of a breathing tube and one death.

So if you use those convenient items, make extra sure your toddler can’t get at them.

Finally we have vaccines for all strains of the deadly meningococcus

Infections from a bacteria called Neisseria meningitides (aka meningococcus) are horrible and often fatal. I have seen probably 20 children die in my career from this, and at least as many suffer terrible complications, such as loss of arms or legs.  This is the bacteria you have probably read stories in the paper about because it can cause lethal mini-epidemics in schools and any place children and adolescents come together in close contact. The infections come in a couple of varieties: meningitis alone, meningitis with septicemia, or septicemia alone. Of the three, the last is generally the worst, with a high mortality rate and serious aftereffects in survivors.

There are five strains of meningococcus that cause disease. We have had a vaccine for four of them for many years. But one of them, group B, has been difficult to develop an effective vaccine for, and this strain is a common cause of disease. The big news, and it is big, is that we now have a vaccine for group B. Meningococcal vaccine is recommended for adolescents — see your doctor about getting it for your child.

All about caffeine: what is it, where is it, and how does it work?

This one is more for you parents than it is for your children. I ran across an excellent and readable summary of what we know about caffeine. First of all, the stuff is everywhere. It is a brain stimulant that is found in many food and drink products, although the most common sources are coffee, tea, and now energy drinks like Red Bull. Here are some fun facts about it.

  1. 68 million Americans drink 3 cups of coffee per day
  2. 21 million Americans drink more than 6 cups per day
  3. 50% of caffeine users experience unpleasant symptoms when they stop, typically headaches, which can last for a week
  4. 5 grams of it can be fatal, but that is 30-40 cups of coffee
Risk of autism: how much is inherited and how much is from environmental causes?

Risk of autism: how much is inherited and how much is from environmental causes?

November 19, 2014  |  General  |  No Comments

Autism was first reported in the medical literature 70 years ago. In 1943 a child psychologist named Leo Kanner described a child with social difficulties and repetitive, stereotypic movements; the following year Hans Asperger described four such children. Since then we have gradually learned more about what we now call autism spectrum disorders (ASD), although we still do not know what causes it. From early on it was apparent that the risk for developing autism was higher among children who had other family members with the disorder. But how much higher? Twice as high? Ten times as high? Recently a very good study from Sweden has given us solid information about genetic risk for ASD. The study’s title is “The Familial Risk of Autism“.

Sweden has a very centralized and complete health care and medical record system. This allows tracking of relatives beyond the immediate family — cousins and grandparents — as well as siblings and half-siblings. One thing to note, however, is that Swedish society is much more homogeneous than ours, something that we should keep in mind when we interpret the results. The researchers also made no attempt to understand what environmental factors could be playing a role in ASD. The power of the study is that the authors asked a simple question: What is the risk for an individual child for having ASD and how is that risk affected by having other family members with the disorder?

The authors studied just over two million Swedish children born between 1982 and 2006. That is a huge study group, much higher than earlier ASD studies. What they measured was the relative recurrence risk for autism. This is the risk for the disorder among children with family members who have it compared to the risk for children with no family members with ASD. If the risk is the same for both groups, there is no genetic component. The extent to which the risk is greater for children who have affected family members is the contribution of genetic factors. This risk should get higher the closer the relationship — a sibling should cause a higher risk than, say, a first cousin. There is an important caveat to keep in mind here. Close family members often share the same environment as well as the same genes. A standard way to get around this problem is to study closely related individuals, especially identical twins, raised in separate environments. The authors weren’t able to do that, but it is still a very powerful and compelling study simply because of its huge size.

So what did they find? The risk for ASD in a given child was 10-fold higher if there was an affected full sibling, 3-fold higher if there was an affected half-sibling, and 2-fold higher if there was an affected first cousin. Plugging these numbers into a series of calculations, the authors determined that, overall, the contribution of genetic factors to ASD was 50%; that of environmental factors was 50%. So, half and half.

Autism is a complicated disorder. Like other neurological problems with both genetic and environmental components, such as schizophrenia, it is most likely a complex interplay of environmental influences on a genetically susceptible brain. There is an enormous amount of ongoing research to identify what is happening and what we can do about it, and I fully expect useful answers and treatments within the next few years. Studies such as this one are crucial to figuring it out.

The credentialing process for physicians has become a cumbersome, chaotic, and unholy mess

November 12, 2014  |  General  |  No Comments

Everyone wants to be sure their physician is competent and appropriately trained. The way this is done is through credentialing. A new applicant for privileges to practice at a hospital or other healthcare facility fills out an application and submits a curriculum vitae that details when and where a physician trained and the certifications obtained, such as specialty boards, and a work history (if any). Copies of key documents — medical degrees, residency certificates, and the like — accompany the application. The applicant also provides the names of professional references who can attest to competency. Also required are declarations that the applicant has never been fired (or asked to resign) from a medical job for competency issues. The applicant also must also swear to a long list of other things. These include not being a drug addict (who would answer yes to that?), a convicted felon, or to have been disciplined for questionable or illegal activity. A committee then reviews the application and grants (or not) privileges to practice medicine at that facility.

Before the committee grants privileges, however, all the information gets verified. This makes perfect sense because, regrettably, there are more than a few documented instances of people embellishing or even outright lying on their applications. I have been on enough selection committees to know that folks occasionally stretch the truth. Flagrant examples of this occasionally make the news. The job of credentialing departments is to check up on all this. Interestingly, in the example I just linked to, the guy hoodwinked all the verifiers; it was only picked up later by accident.

It gets more complicated because not just hospitals and healthcare facilities want their practitioners credentialed. All of the people who pay the bills, such as insurance companies and the government — Medicare, Medicaid — want to make sure they are paying legitimate costs to legitimate practitioners. So they have their own credentialing departments, all different in how they do things. A typical physician has to be credentialed by every single one of the payers covering every single one of his or her patients. That can mean a dozen payers or more. So, for example, besides having privileges at the hospitals at which I practice, my background is verified by all the people who pay the bills for my patients. And believe me, the requirements of all these entities are not the same and all have their own sheaf of forms to fill out and supporting documents to submit.

This situation cries out for a central clearing house for credentialing information. Some examples of this exist, such as this one, if nothing else because collecting all this information is tedious and expensive. Credentialing departments at many facilities are getting larger all the time. Credentialing is also a major industry, with overwhelmed facility credentialing staffs farming out the process to outside contractors. The problem is that, in our disorganized healthcare “system,” no facility or entity wants to surrender the right to collect their own data in their own way. Attempts to institute a more global process, at least in my experience, have simply added another layer of bureaucracy to slog through. The convenience, or even the sanity, of the physicians wrestling with this unholy mess is not their concern. For physicians like me, who practice at several hospitals in different parts of the country with little overlap in who the regional payers are, the expense and hassle of it all are large. And even when you think you’re done, you’re not: many entities require frequent updates, often meaning a whole new application. One that I deal with demands this every three months.

Okay — rant over. But what prompted this was my agreeing recently to help out some people for a few weeks at a new hospital. I’m now four months into the credentialing “process.” During that time I’ve dealt with three separate organizations, none of which communicate with each other. I’ve worn out my fax machine submitting extraneous document after document. Nearly every day my email inbox has strident demands for still something else IMMEDIATELY! If I hadn’t promised my time to people I like, I think at this point I would just say: no, I’m done — good luck.

I’ve been practicing medicine for over 35 years. For my first job I just showed up for work. People checked that I had graduated from medical school, done a residency, and passed my exams, but that was about it. I realize physicians have to some extent brought all this on ourselves by a few of us scamming the system over the years or just lying. I recall a case some years ago of a physician lying about a five year gap in his work history, a gap that turned out to be because he was serving time in prison for third-degree murder. (I looked for a link to this incident but couldn’t find one — it most likely was pre-Google.)

Anyway, I think this credentialing mess has got to get better organized somehow. We need a central authority of some sort, accepted by all. The current trajectory is unsustainable. Healthcare is expensive enough, and all this adds many millions to the total costs for little benefit.


Most new parents don’t know how to use a car seat correctly, vitamin D, and more: Pediatric Newsletter #11

October 27, 2014  |  General  |  No Comments

Here is the latest of my more or less monthly newsletter on pediatric topics. In it I highlight and comment on new research, news stories, or anything else about children’s health that I think will interest parents. If you want to subscribe to it and get it in the form of an email each month there is a sign-up form at the very bottom of my home page.

About those physician rating sites: do parents use them to find a physician for their child?

There are now a multitude of web sites on the internet that allow consumers, that is patients and their families, to rate physicians. And why not? There are rating sites for many other products and services. But these sites can strike fear into the hearts of doctors because, when you look at them, the number of ratings for a particular physician is usually quite low. In my own case, for example, a popular rating site only lists one for me even though I’ve been practicing for 30 years. So there is the fear that one disgruntled patient can tank your rating. But these sites are here to stay, I think. A big question is if parents use them to find a doctor for their child: or, if they haven’t used them, would they? A recent survey asked that question and found that parents are beginning to use the information on the sites. My concern is that, if this is the future, they be run a little better. For example, Angie’s List, a popular one, has contacted me several times to ask me to rate myself. I assume it was a computer glitch, but the potential to cook the books is always a concern with anonymous rating sites.

Long term treatment of ADHD with stimulant medications does not affect growth

Pediatricians are always concerned that long term treatment with any medication could affect a child’s growth. This is true for any medication, but it is a particular concern for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) because there are so many children taking these medications and they often take them for many years. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics is reassuring on that point. The authors studied a large group of children through childhood and on into adulthood and found no effect on growth.

A related, and important point, is how common is ADHD? A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control (the CDC) used surveys of parents to assess that issue. What they found is that 11% of all children between the ages of 4 and 17 had at one time or another been given the diagnosis of ADHD, and 83% of those still carried that label. And 69% of the total were currently taking ADHD medication. That represents a whopping 43% increase over the past decade. For myself, I find it hard to believe ADHD is increasing at that rate; it’s more likely increased awareness of the condition, but there also may be a component of you find what you look for.

What is my advice to parents about this? I’m not an ADHD expert, I’m a critical care pediatrician, but it seems to me to be a stretch to categorize 11% of all children as abnormal — that even defies the definition of what the word normal means. If your child’s teacher wants you to get ADHD medications for your child, I would first carefully look into the details of the concerning behavior. How troublesome is it really? Could there be other explanations? Could more structure help? Then see a physician or psychologist with experience with ADHD. If the recommendation is for medication, for myself I’d seek another opinion and see if they agree. This is an area in which parents should be the ones driving the bus.

Most parents don’t know how to use a car seat when they leave the hospital with their newborn infants

There is no question that car seats save lives. Since their use has been mandated by law, the death and injury rates of children involved in motor vehicle accidents have fallen dramatically (40-50%). But the seats need to be used correctly. A recent report suggests that new parents need more help in figuring out how to install and use them. In fact, 93% of new parents made at least 1 critical error in using the seat. So if you’re not entirely sure if you’re doing it right, have someone check. Our hospital, like all hospitals delivering babies, has specially trained nurses that can look at your seat, your car, and make sure the seat is installed right. There are also quite a few good online sites (like this one) telling you about different kinds of seats, which children need which ones, and how to install them.

Lower vitamin D levels found in children who drink non-cow’s milk

Many children do not drink cow’s milk. This may be because of a sensitivity to cow’s milk protein, a common condition, or because of parental preference. Parents of children in this situation should know that this brings a risk of reduced vitamin D levels in the blood. Commercial cow’s milk is fortified with vitamin D, as are infant formulas that don’t contain cow’s milk. A recent studymeasured vitamin D levels in children who don’t drink commercial cow’s milk and found that many of these children had low vitamin D levels.

Vitamin D has long been known to be crucial for bone growth. Rickets, a once common bone disease in children caused by low vitamin D, is now extremely rare since milk has been fortified with the vitamin. We also know now that vitamin D has many other functions, such as in cardiovascular health. Our body can make vitamin D if exposed to sufficient sunshine, but this is not a reliable source. Of note, the above study comes from Toronto, and rickets was once much more common in climates where children get less sunshine exposure.

The bottom line is that if your child does not drink fortified cow’s milk he or she is at risk for low vitamin D. Your child’s doctor can help you with identifying the best way to supplement this key nutrient.

The ultimate challenge in controlling healthcare costs: reducing needless care

October 8, 2014  |  General  |  No Comments

Efforts to reduce overuse of health care services run counter to the dominant financial incentives in our fee-for-service system, challenge the cultural assumption that more is better, and raise concerns about stinting on necessary care.

That quotation is from a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine. It points out the often quoted estimate that 25-35% of all medical care either doesn’t do any good or is actually potentially harmful, what the editorialist calls low-value care. That is a huge problem, one that will prove very difficult to solve.

The fundamental issue as I see it is that, although founded on science, medicine is very imperfect as a science. It’s a mixture of science, near-science, intuition, guesswork, and blind luck. Depending upon the disease or condition, the more uncertain portions of medical practice figure much more prominently than the certain ones. Over the past several decades we have tried more and more to use evidence-based medicine, that is, doing only things and using only treatments that hard evidence has shown to be beneficial. Unfortunately, rigorous studies of what works and what doesn’t work are difficult and expensive to do. More than that, a great deal of what we do doesn’t even lend itself to that kind of research. We’re often stuck with what committees of experts recommend based upon weaker studies or just opinions.

The other huge problem is with how fee-for-service medical practice works: doctors are generally paid  much more for doing things than for not doing things. Low benefit or even useless treatments represent somebody’s revenue stream; limiting or even eliminating them takes money out of practitioners’ pockets, creating a strong impetus to keep going as we are. But the enormous cost may finally be convincing the public that something has to change:

Public acceptance of a role for policy in reducing the use of low-value care in the United States is tenuous but increasing with growing awareness of the burden that health care spending places on federal and state budgets and with patients’ increasing exposure to health care costs.

I have no doubt that ultimately physicians will be told what they can and cannot do, most likely through the mechanism of what insurance payers will pay for. We’ve been seeing various forms of that kind of limitation for years and the process will accelerate. The mechanism of high co-pays was hoped to help by giving patients a financial incentive to avoid needless medical care. But there is a problem with that, too.

Demand-side interventions — targeting patients — principally include financial incentives and education. Increasing patient cost sharing is a blunt instrument: research shows that it can reduce use of both low- and high-value care, which suggests that patients do not have the information or skill required to differentiate between the two.

Many people outside the medical field think that applying simple market principles would help. If things cost so much, why not just increase the number of physicians and let them compete with each other on cost. Surely the result would be, as with other supply and demand commodities, that costs will come down. It doesn’t happen that way. In medical care, supply drives demand rather than the other way around. Adding more physicians who do things results in more things being done, something known for 50 years.

I don’t know what will happen with all this, but something will. But this will be the general direction:

To address overuse, we now need to work against the current of culture and payment models that still largely reward volume over value.

A smartphone app for jaundice, effects of digital media on children’s brains and more: Pediatric Newsletter #10

September 30, 2014  |  General  |  No Comments

Here is the latest of my more or less monthly newsletter on pediatric topics. In it I highlight and comment on new research, news stories, or anything else about children’s health that I think will interest parents. If you want to subscribe to it and get it in the form of an email each month there is a sign-up form at the very bottom of my home page.

Coming soon: A smartphone app to see if your baby is too jaundiced

This bit of news is pretty interesting, although the product is still in development. These days babies typically go home from the hospital when they’re a day old or even less.Newborn jaundice is very common, especially in breast-fed babies. Nearly all the time it means nothing and passes without treatment. Once in a while, though, the blood bilirubin, which causes the jaundice, gets dangerously high. We treat it with phototherapy. It takes a blood test to measure the blood level, although we’ve used devices for years in the hospital that estimate it from the skin color, identifying those babies that need the blood test. Now it looks as if there will be a way to screen your baby at home using your cell phone and then sending the results to you doctor. I think it’s a cool concept.

Let them sleep in more: American Academy of Pediatrics recommends delaying school start for adolescents

Every parent with a teenager knows they like to sleep more. To no one’s surprise, this is because they need more sleep to be healthy and sharp for school. Research has shown real benefits for mental and physical health. Starting school at 7:30 in the morning, or even earlier, is particularly hard for adolescents. Recognizing this, the AAP has come out with new recommendations for middle and high school start times, suggesting 8:30 am as more appropriate.

Who knows if this will go anywhere because the logistics of getting kids to school and parents to work on time can make it tough to change things. After school activities, such as sports, would also be affected if practice times are pushed back. But it seems pretty clear that a later start would be better for teenagers.

Children who use digital media a lot may be less able to read actual human emotions

This one is interesting. All of us, especially children, are spending a lot more time staring at digital screens — computers, smart phones, video games. A research report coming out next month suggests this may not be a good thing for emotional development. Children, who have not yet fully developed human interaction skills, may be less able to read emotions on actual human faces if they spend a large amount of time with screens.

The researchers found that children whose access to electronic devices was limited were better able to read other people’s emotions. The authors concluded: “Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues – losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people – is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills.

“I’m not surprised by this, really, and I find it concerning. It’s one of several reasons my wife and I monitor and limit our son’s computer and smart phone time.

High levels of physical activity linked to early academic achievement

Every parent knows that physical activity is good for children. Among other things, being active and not parking in front of the TV is linked to a lower level of obesity. A new study from Finland suggests that a higher than average level of physical activity is also linked to improved academic performance in elementary students, particularly among boys.

The authors observed 186 children during recess for the first 3 years of schooling and also collected other information on physical activity, such as riding a bike to school: “The improvements in academic attainment were most striking in male participants, especially with reading skills. Boys with higher levers of physical activity, and in particular walking or cycling to school, had better reading skills than the less active boys.

“I was interested to see this research but it seems to me to be confirming common sense. What it is really saying is that if you encourage children, especially boys, to run around a lot and work out their energy, they concentrate better in the classroom. It reminds us that old-fashioned recess is getting rarer and rarer. A half-hour of unstructured play time used to be common; it no longer is.

Finally, an effective treatment for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?

September 22, 2014  |  General  |  No Comments

Respiratory syncytial virus infection, aka RSV, is a common infection in children. A key aspect of RSV is how poor a job our immune systems do in fighting it off. Virtually all children are infected with RSV during the first few years of life. Not only that, all of us are reinfected multiple times during our lives. Attempts at devising a vaccine for RSV have all been unsuccessful. In fact, early versions of an experimental vaccine seemed to make the disease worse in some infants, raising the possibility that some aspect of our immune response to the virus actually contributes to the symptoms.

RSV has a high attack rate — the term scientists use for the chances that a susceptible person will get the infection if exposed to it. That, plus our generally poor defenses against it, explain the frequent epidemics. Every year a new crop of susceptible infants enters the population.

The most common form of RSV infection is called bronchiolitis. In medical terminology, adding the ending “itis” to a word means that whatever comes before is inflamed. Thus tonsillitis is an inflammation of the tonsils and appendicitis means an inflamed appendix. So bronchiolitis is an inflammation of the bronchioles, the final part of the system of air-conducting tubes that connect the lungs with the outside world. Beyond the bronchioles are the aveoli, the grape-like clusters of air sacs where the business of the lungs — getting oxygen into our bodies and carbon dioxide out — takes place.

Bronchiolitis is a disorder of blocked small airways. This prevents air from getting in and out normally, primarily out. In bronchiolitis, the main problem is that the bronchiole tubes are blocked from swelling of the walls and from debris caused by the RSV infection — bits of broken airway cells and mucous plugs. It looks like this, with the arrows showing air movement.

Infants are the ones who have the most trouble breathing with bronchiolitis. There are several reasons for this, but a key one is the construction of an infant’s chest. When small airways get blocked, we use our chest muscles — tightening them — to force air in and out of our lungs. We are helped in doing this by the fact that our lungs are encased in a fairly rigid rib cage; when we use our muscles to squeeze or expand our chest the system works like a bellows. Infants can’t do this well because the ribs across the entire front half of their chest are not yet solid bone — they are still soft cartilage.  So when a small infant tries to suck air in against anything that is restricting airflow, like clogged bronchioles, his chest tends to sink inwards, causing what we call retractions. These are easiest to see just below the last ribs. They also have trouble forcing air out, so their chests become hyperexpanded with air, making it look as if their chests are puffed out a little. The other reason infants have so much trouble handling debris in their bronchioles is that these tubes are already much smaller to start with, so they get more easily clogged up than do the larger airways of older children.

We have never had any specific treatment that works for RSV bronchiolitis. All we can do is what we call supportive care — oxygen, some breathing treatments (which usually don’t help much), IV fluids if the child is too sick to eat, and a few things we can do to help with mucus clearance. But now that may be changing. A recent study looked at a new drug to kill the RSV virus directly, something we’ve never had before.

The drug, which can be given orally, was tested on adults, not children — yet. The results were very encouraging. One of the issues with other anti-viral drugs has been that they only work well if they are given very early in the course of the illness or even before symptoms start. This new anti-RSV drug works even after people are sick with the virus. It greatly reduced the amount of virus in respiratory mucus, where we usually find the virus. Perhaps more importantly for sick infants, it also caused rapid improvement in symptoms.

Dr. Peter Wright, an RSV expert, is excited about the possibilities of the drug. Dr. Wright has worked on RSV for many, many years — so many that he was one of my teachers at Vanderbilt Hospital way back in 1978. I can recall that he does not get excited easily. I’m excited, too, because severe RSV bronchiolitis is a real scourge we see frequently in the PICU. Some infants even die from it. I was also pleased to read that Dr. Wright is still on the RSV case after all these years.

Pediatric Newsletter #9

August 23, 2014  |  General  |  No Comments

Here is the latest of my more or less monthly newsletter on pediatric topics. In it I highlight and comment on new research, news stories, or anything else about children’s health that I think will interest parents. If you want to subscribe to it and get it in the form of an email each month there is a sign-up form at the very bottom of my home page.

At what age to overweight and obese children start getting that way?

Most parents are aware that the average weight of America’s children is going up — more and more kids are overweight or obese. Experts debate the reason for this but we know it is happening. We have piles of data documenting the percentage of children who weigh too much, but until now we haven’t known the answer to a key question: When did they start to become that way? This is a key question because it would tell us where to concentrate our intervention measures. Now we know.
To understand this better you need to understand the difference between two key terms – incidence and prevalence. Incidence is the number of new cases of something in a year; prevalence is the overall number of cases of something in the population at a given time. We have known a lot about the prevalence of childhood obesity but, until now, nothing about the incidence. That is, we didn’t know when the large number of obese children first got that way.

This research article, which got wide coverage in the medical press, contains the important information. It uses year by year weights of several thousand children to see at what age individual kids became overweight and obese.

The answer? KINDERGARDEN! That is, age five is when the largest number of children who were to become overweight and obese first started becoming that way. More than that, it may be even younger because the number of overweight and obese five-year-olds was already pretty high.

The article is in a medical journal but is worth a look if you are interested in the topic. You can see the summary without a subscription and it is quite clear.

If you want to know the scientific definitions of what the categories “overweight” and “obese” mean, and how to measure your own child, the Centers for Disease Control has a good source here.

Football concussions in high school players: how you tackle matters

If you have a son who plays football you probably have heard a lot about concussions, which we now know are much more common than we previously thought. We also now know that they can be much more serious than just “getting your bell rung.” Getting multiple concussions, or another one before the symptoms of the first one have gone away, is very bad for the brain.

Although any blow to the head can cause a concussion, we don’t know if the location of the blow matters much. A recent study in high school players looked at the question. It turns out that a blow to the top of the head, such as when a player rams another player head-on, is more likely to cause one. I’ve never played football, but the authors point out that correct tackling technique is with the head up. It appears that the correct way to tackle is also the safest.

Why are teenage boys so fearless?

Every parent of a teenage boy knows that their ability to  judge risks is often not good. Why is that? Why do they seem to think they are immortal, and that bad things won’t happen to them? Is there something special about the teenage male brain? The answer appears to be yes.

A recent, quite sophisticated, study used high-tech brain scanning techniques to examine teenagers’ brains when exposed to a variety of simulated situations. The authors concluded this: “Adolescent males are relatively insensitive to punishment or losses, but hypersensitive to large gains.” From this they also speculated why punishment or threat of punishment alone is often not the best way to discipline an adolescent male.

So science may be demonstrating what parents have known for generations. Still, an interesting read.

Don’t ever give your child codeine cough syrup. Ever.

We’ve known for some time that codeine, often in the form of prescription cough syrup, can be bad for children. The side effects can be severe, especially in children under the age of two, but it can do bad things in older children as well. The main problem is that the effect on a given child is quite unpredictable. What’s more, these syrups don’t even work at suppressing cough. A recent study reports the discouraging news that physicians haven’t gotten the message; the number of prescriptions written for codeine cough syrup for children has barely changed in the last several years; it is still a very large number. Parents can help. If a doctor wants to write such a prescription for your child, say you don’t want it. You might also remind the doctor that medical experts are unanimous in their condemnation of these products. Also, codeine as a pain killer doesn’t work well for children. So don’t use it for that, either.


Sleep apnea in children: what do we know?

August 17, 2014  |  General  |  No Comments

Earlier this year a child died following a surgical procedure in California for a condition called obstructive sleep apnea. The case generated a great deal of concern among parents about both this condition and the surgery often done to treat it. I wrote a post myself about it at the time. I still get questions about it because I care for quite a few children immediately after they have had surgery for it : What is it? How do we diagnose it? How do we treat it? Is surgery always necessary?

Technically the word apnea means cessation of breathing, but what we generally mean by it is a significant pause in breathing. Generally we define an apneic pause as lasting twenty seconds without taking a breath. Most of us can hold our breath that long without difficulty if we mean to, such as when we dive beneath the water. But that is when we are awake and in control of things. Things are different when we are asleep. A person with sleep apnea is unaware of their abnormal breathing pattern because they are asleep, although as you will read it’s often not very healthy sleep.

The condition is called obstructive sleep apnea because the problem is the result of obstruction of air flow. The obstruction happens at the level of what we call the upper airway — primarily the back of the throat. When we’re awake we keep good control of the tension in the muscles around our upper airway. But when we’re asleep the muscular tissues back there relax. They may sort of flop together and this can lead to obstruction. Think of the passageway as a pipe. If you look in the mirror and open your mouth wide you can see most of the key components. The tongue is at the bottom of the pipe and top is composed of the soft palette toward the front and the adenoids toward the back, although you can’t see the adenoids because they are tucked up behind the soft palette at the back of the nasal passages. The sides of the pipe at the narrowest point are the tonsils. Right at the back of the throat the pipe makes a right angle turn and dives downward, so the tissue sat the back of the throat are also important. Obstruction of air flow happens when any of those components bulge out into the pipe to make it significantly smaller.

There’s a principle of physics that comes into play here. It was originally described for fluid flow through a pipe, but it also applies to air flow. The principle is that, if other things are kept constant, flow is proportional to the fourth power of the radius of the pipe. That may sound esoteric, but it has real, practical implications for obstructive sleep apnea. It means that a relatively small reduction in the size of the opening has a huge impact on how much flows through it. So if you make the airway pipe half as wide you reduce flow by a factor of sixteen. People with obstructive sleep apnea have the size of their pipe sufficiently reduced when asleep to block air flow, and this leads to problems.

What are those problems? They stem from not getting enough oxygen into the lungs, not getting enough carbon dioxide out of the lungs, or a combination of both. This causes a reduction in oxygen and a build up of carbon dioxide in the blood, not a good thing. The brain recognizes things are not right and responds by not really going into a deep, normal sleep; the person frequently partially awakens so that more normal muscle tone returns, briefly enlarging the airway — at least until he falls back to sleep. The heart has to work harder than normal. The vessels of the lungs can be affected in a bad way.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea? The most common is severe snoring, especially when the person is lying on his back. If you listen to someone with sleep apnea snoring you often hear a pattern of steadily worsening snoring, then a pause in breathing, then a sort of snort as they arouse, and then a repeat of the cycle. People with the condition are often drowsy during the day because they never really get a good night’s sleep. For children, poor school performance is common because of this. A headache in the morning is often common.

How common is obstructive sleep apnea in children? A reasonable estimate is that around 1% of children have symptoms of it at one time or another. It may be increasing because the problem is associated with being overweight and the prevalence of that among children is increasing.

How do we treat it? There are really two ways, both designed to keep the airway open when sleeping. A treatment often used in adults is  CPAP, which stands for continuous positive airway pressure. The idea is that if you place a tight-fitting mask over the mouth and/or the nose and blow air through it down into the lungs, the pressure will hold the airway open. It can be very effective. As you can imagine, however, many children will not tolerate wearing this apparatus because it can be uncomfortable and the CPAP machine is noisy. The second option is surgery to make the airway bigger. That usually means removing the tonsils and adenoids, although sometimes working on other parts of the airway, such as the soft palette, is part of the procedure.

If you are concerned that your child has sleep apnea — perhaps she snores loudly, you hear pauses in her breathing while asleep, and she is drowsy during the day — how can you be sure? After all, we don’t want to be doing surgery needlessly. It’s an important question and we have some good practice guidelines to go by. The American Academy of Pediatrics has published these. The most important principle is that we have specific tests we can do, tests incorporated into what we call a sleep study. This makes measurements of blood oxygen levels and measures airflow through the airway while the child sleeps. For many years the studies were difficult to do in children, but now many centers can do them. My own view is that, for most children, surgery should not be done without these studies to confirm the diagnosis. The exception would be if the diagnosis is clear (severe, obvious obstruction when asleep) or the child already has signs of stress on the heart and lungs.

How good is the surgery in children? Does it work? A recent research study helps to answer that question. For most children, surgery helped their sleep pattern significantly. The investigators didn’t demonstrate improvement in cognitive function during the day, such as school performance, but the time frame may have been too short to show that.

How dangerous is the surgery? The California case demonstrates that it, like any surgical procedure, is not without risk. There may be excessive bleeding afterwards, although we have ways to deal with that. Although this kind of surgery is often “same day,” meaning you can go home some hours afterwards, your child may need to stay in the hospital overnight. This is particularly likely if the sleep apnea was severe. The figures I’ve seen put the risk of death, the ultimate risk, at somewhere between 1 in 12,000 and 1 in 15,000. The death risk relates not only to the actual surgery but also to the anesthesia required to do it.


A new study on the safety of home births: are they as safe as hospital births?

July 12, 2014  |  General  |  No Comments

From time immemorial until about 75 years ago or so most babies were born at home. Now it’s around 1% in the USA, although it’s much higher than that in many Western European countries. The shift to hospital births paralleled the growth of hospitals, pediatrics, and obstetrics. With that shift there has been a perceived decrease in women’s autonomy over their healthcare decisions. There has also been an unsurprising jump in the proportion of Caesarian section deliveries, an operative procedure, and various other medical interventions in labor and delivery. So the debate over whether this is a good thing or a bad thing (or neither) is much more than a medical debate; it is also a social and political one. It is also to some extent an issue of medical power, a struggle between physician obstetricians who deliver babies in the hospital and nurse midwives who often deliver babies at home. I’m very interested in the social and political aspects, but as a pediatrician I’m particularly concerned with the safety question: Is it more dangerous for your baby to be born at home?

There have been many studies that attempt to answer that question. Many, even most, of them come from outside the USA. The results are mixed. Some say hospital birth is safest (this one, for example), others that there is no difference (this one, for example). One US study that found home delivery to be riskier has had its methodology heavily criticized. What we need are some well designed, large cohort studies from the USA, especially since healthcare systems differ substantially from country to country. I think this recent study from the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology is very useful in that regard.

The main question the authors tried to answer was how the babies did. The measure they looked at was to analyze the frequency of two well-accepted markers of infant distress, things that correlate with trouble later in development. Bear in mind that there can be many reasons for these bad things to happen — some avoidable, some not. The notion is that if one can study a large enough group, then particular circumstances for individual births will wash out in the totals.

The potentially bad things that the authors chose were easy things to count and document. The first was a low Apgar score at 5 minutes after birth. The Apgar score, scaled 0 to 10 and recorded at 1 and 5 minutes after birth, has been a standard, well validated measure of infant distress for many decades. A value of less than 4 is potentially very bad for the baby. The other measure the authors chose was seizures, convulsions, immediately after birth. These can be caused by many things, but most of them are bad.

The study group consisted of over 2 million infants born in 2008. Of these only 12,000 were planned home births (0.6%). This shows how uniform hospital birth has become in the USA, but 12,000 is still a very large group of babies. They excluded babies born unexpectedly outside the hospital.

The results showed that babies born in the hospital, as you would expect, had a very much larger percentage of obstetrical interventions of various sorts associated with their birth. Regarding the distress measures, 0.24% of hospital-born babies had Apgars of less than 4 at 5 minutes; this compared with a rate of 0.37% for babies delivered at home — 1.5 fold higher. This difference was statistically significant. Also significantly different was the rate of seizures: for hospital-born babies it was 0.02% and for home-birth babies it was 0.06%, or 3-fold higher.

So what does this mean? First, the incidences of both of these bad things, although statistically higher in the home-birth group, were still very low. That is encouraging. But to understand things better you need to dig deeper into the data and see who attended at these deliveries. In the hospital it was presumably a physician, but what about at home? After all, “home delivery” can mean many things.

In this study, 26% of the home birth attendants were certified nurse-midwives, 51% were other midwives, and the remainder something else. A key finding to me is that the outcomes for babies delivered at home by certified nurse-midwives were no different than for those born in the hospital. So proper training matters — a lot. One key thing a trained midwife should offer is the knowledge of which pregnancies are higher risk and unsafe to deliver outside a hospital.

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have issued policy statements about planned home births. The bottom line to me is that, while neither society is thrilled with the practice, both say properly selected (and they give lists of what that means, which is itself a bit controversial, such as if previous Caesarian section should be a disqualifier), low risk pregnancies can be safely delivered at home. As a pediatrician, I should point out that if you chose that there are some routine things that need to be done for your baby in the first days of life, such as a hearing screen. So you should bring your infant to the doctor promptly for a newborn evaluation.