Health Highlights: April 9, 2009

Thyroid Drug Can Cause Liver Failure in Children, Doctors Warn Stress During Pregnancy Increases Risk of Asthmatic Child: Study New Tests Better Identify Causes of Back Pain

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

Thyroid Drug Can Cause Liver Failure in Children, Doctors Warn

The thyroid disease drug propylthiouracil can cause liver failure in children and should no longer be used to treat them, two U.S. doctors warn in a letter published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Propylthiouracil (PTU) is commonly used to treat youngsters with Graves' disease, the most common cause of overactive thyroid. However, reports over the past six decades have linked the drug to liver failure in children, the Associated Press said.

An analysis of data suggests that five to 10 children in the United States die each year from complications caused by propylthiouracil, said Donald R. Mattison, of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and Dr. Scott A. Rivkees of Yale University School of Medicine.

They recommended that doctors not use propylthiouracil as an initial treatment for overactive thyroid, the AP reported. Another drug called methimazole is available, and other treatments are surgery and radioactive iodine.

Propylthiouracil is also used to treat adults with Graves' disease, but the drug appears to cause fewer liver problems in adults, Mattison and Rivkees said.

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Stress During Pregnancy Increases Risk of Asthmatic Child: Study

Stressed-out pregnant women were 60 percent more likely to have a baby who would develop asthma than calmer mothers-to-be, says a U.K. study that included about 6,000 families.

The researchers also found that 16 percent of children with asthma had mothers who had high levels of anxiety during pregnancy, BBC News reported.

"Perhaps the natural response to stress which produces a variety of hormones in the body may have an influence on the developing infant and their developing immune system that manifests itself later on," said Professor John Henderson of the Children of the '90s project at the University of Bristol.

The project is tracking 14,000 children who are regularly tested in order to determine how different lifestyles affect health, growth and intelligence. The goal is to identify ways to optimize the health and development of children, BBC News reported.

Along with this finding about stress and asthma, the project has found that women who eat oily fish during pregnancy have children with better visual development, and that left-handed children do worse on tests than right-handed children.

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New Tests Better Identify Causes of Back Pain

Simple bedside tests can help doctors identify different causes of back pain and improve treatment, say U.S. and U.K. researchers who studied more than 300 patients with chronic back pain.

The researchers developed a set of six questions and 10 physical tests that identify patients with neuropathic pain (nerve damage) and other causes of back pain, BBC News reported.

This set of tests is superior to existing screening tests for neuropathic pain and even to MRI spinal scans, the researchers said. The study was published in the journal PLoS Medicine.

"Currently, clinicians measure pain only by asking how bad it is, using scales from mild to moderate to severe or asking patients to rate their pain from one to 10," said lead author Joachim Scholz, an assistant professor of anesthesia, BBC News reported.

"This approach misses key characteristics that reflect the mechanisms causing the pain," Scholz said. "The treatment of neuropathic and non-neuropathic pain is quite different, and if a diagnosis is wrong, patients may receive treatment, including surgery, that does not improve their pain."

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