Health non-news gives me a headache

Photo: openDemocracy via Flickr

Health news is pretty much an oxymoron. All health articles hedge — the “news” is all provisional. But some are much worse, like this Wall Street Journal article about what to take for a headache.

“Advil vs. Tylenol. Which to Use, and When,” doesn’t tell you what to use, or when — it suggests what you might use, if you don’t mind a world record for weasel words. When you read “some studies may suggest,” “slightly less effective,” and “might to better,” you know you’re hip deep. Excerpts:

Got a headache? Tylenol, or its generic version acetaminophen, might be your best bet since it comes with fewer side effects, many experts say.

How acetaminophen works in the body isn’t fully understood, said Norman Tomaka, a pharmacist in Melbourne, Fla., and a spokesman for the American Pharmacists Association. Experts believe the drug works on the central nervous system, blocking pain receptors in the brain.

For certain types of pain, such as sports injuries and muscle soreness, NSAIDs such as ibuprofen might work a bit better because of their anti-inflammatory properties, some doctors say. Some studies have found NSAIDs are generally more effective at reducing fevers and relieving menstrual cramps.

And for back pain and osteoarthritis, ibuprofen might be preferable.

In general, acetaminophen and ibuprofen have similar indications, although ibuprofen may have an advantage in reducing inflammation, said Rajesh Mishra . . .

And while some studies may suggest acetaminophen to be slightly less effective for certain conditions, consumers also need to look at the products’ safety profiles, Dr. Mishra said. Because of possible side effects from ibuprofen and other NSAIDs, elderly people and those with chronic conditions might do better with acetaminophen.

Generally [acetaminophen] takes at least 45 minutes to start working and twice that to see measurable pain relief. That may lead some people to take more than they should, said Mr. Tomaka, with the American Pharmacists Association.

Got it?

If you’re writing about something uncertain, like health news, here’s what to do:

Explain what’s true and explain what’s in doubt. Make what recommendations you can. And if you can’t say something worth saying, don’t say anything. Because high-frequency fence-straddling will give your readers a migraine and leave a bad impression.

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  1. I get a headache just looking at the cover of Prevention magazine, walking past it in the grocery lane. Remember when it used to be about heath, when Rodale was not a slave to pharmaceutical companies? I do. Now it’s a few articles written with weasel words, as per your examples, interspersed between multi-page drug ads, including the tiny-print disclaimers that take up more pages than the 4-color ads of smiling people on drugs. Do they actually think aging hippies are going to fall for it? Apparently.