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by Margaret Stearn
2001, Hatherleigh Press
Review by Kristin Nelson, M.A. on Feb 7th 2003

Embarrassing Medical Problems

Embarrassing Medical Problems is a user-friendly text that gives the terminally shy or embarrassed patient some recourse other than baring all to their doctors or just living without help.  Appropriately, excessive shyness is one of the topics.  However, judging by the number of people who picked the book up from my desk "just to browse," my guess is that everyone has a little something he or she doesn't feel comfortable discussing with a physician.

The book is subtitled "everything you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask your doctor."  It would appear from reviewing the table of contents that most people want to know about, but are afraid to discuss, sex. In fact, the sex/genitalia topics - bottoms, breasts, condoms, crab lice, ejaculation, genital warts, headache during sex, impotence, jock itch, lumps on genitalia, nipples, oral sex, penis, sex, swollen testicles, urinating during sex, vaginal problems, vaginal lips and vulva - comprise 43% of the sections in this book. It is clear that people are not comfortable discussing their bodies - particularly questions of the "is this normal?" variety.  Some of these problems seem more social than medical in nature.  For instance, the section on condoms details how to put a condom on and keep it from slipping off.  I personally don’t know anyone who has ever considered asking his or her doctor for advice on this.  But perhaps they should, since a misused condom can result in serious health consequences.

The tone of the book is friendly and empathetic.  The author emphasizes that there is no medical condition that will shock a doctor, so people shouldn't think twice about consulting a doctor for any problem, regardless of how personal or seemingly embarrassing.  However, for those who decline professional counsel or don’t believe their problem worthy of a visit to the doctor's office, this book is here to answer their questions.  It's also a fun read for those of us who like to have odd facts at our fingertips.

There are forty-four topics covered in this book with many broken into subtopics. The topics are covered in a visually pleasing, easy to read format.  Most topics include a sidebar of interesting facts about the condition, including historical and cultural tidbits.  For instance, did you know that as a considerate host you should keep a box of matches in your bathroom for your guests because lighting a match immediately neutralizes any odor they may produce?  Diagrams are used liberally as teaching aides, though there is only one photograph in the whole book.  The author has done an exceptional job of using diagrams to achieve clarity.

Since many of these issues are difficult to talk about they are also the type for which myths abound.  True-false quizzes are included in some sections as a fun way of dispelling common misconceptions about these problems.  Other sections incorporate colorful sidebars that highlight facts about the condition.  In all the sections, there is clearly an effort to impart accurate information that will help the reader address his or her problem and be more comfortable discussing the issue with a physician if necessary.

Each section begins with a description of the problem or condition.  This is usually followed by an explanation of what causes the condition, or if the topic is a body area, such as breasts, there is a discussion of the range of normal appearance and function.  This is followed by suggestions for home remedies - what one can do to avoid the problem or cure it if you have it.  Attention is also given to popular treatments that don’t work, so that the reader knows what to avoid.  Finally, there is a discussion about what a doctor could do for the condition or problem, including an explanation of what tests might be done and what treatments might be offered.  At the end of most sections there is a list of useful links to help the reader find more information on the subject or to put the reader in contact with organizations that can offer advice or support. 

While one is unlikely to sit down and read this book from cover to cover, it is worth skimming through each section.  There is something to be learned on each page.  This is a useful, if limited, reference book that will catch the attention of anyone who sees it.  But no one will claim to need it.  Remember, they are "just browsing."


© 2003 Kristin Nelson


Kristin Nelson, M.A., is an assistant professor and medical ethicist at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center & Rush University in Chicago.  She is also the mother of three-year-old twins on the autism spectrum.

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