Something Hurts. What Now?

Our educational system does a pretty terrible job at teaching the majority of important life skills. The general retort seems to be “those things are the parents’ job to teach”, but that doesn’t generalize: what if the kid’s parent doesn’t know? What if the kid doesn’t have parents? It’s a silly argument.

One of the most basic things that our education system fails to teach is how to take care of yourself. If you have an ache or pain, is it serious or not? If it isn’t, what palliatives should you use to mitigate the pain?

Today, I’ll be discussing all those things, and also some easy remedies you can use to prevent potentially costly problems.

Diagnosing Problems

  1. What hurts?
  2. What kind of pain is it? (i.e., is it aching, shooting, stabbing, etc, and how bad is it)
  3. How long has it been going on? (this includes whether it’s constant or intermittent)

That’s it. Three-step system to help you diagnose your pain. Here are some illustrative examples of how it works.

What hurts? The back of my head. What kind of pain? Moderate ache and stiffness. How long? Pretty constantly all day. This would be a tension headache, caused by knotting of the muscles in your neck. When you use muscles, the muscle fibers get torn apart a bit. If you don’t stretch properly after a workout, or if you stay in a position that uses a muscle for too long, that muscle doesn’t mend correctly after it’s torn. This causes the muscle fibers to get tangled, or “knotted”.

What hurts? My ankle. What kind of pain? Severe stabbing when I move my foot in a particular way or try to stand on it. How long? Since I fell a few minutes ago. This would probably be a sprain. You can distinguish a sprain from a broken bone with two factors: 1, a sprain is much less painful. My skating coach fell and broke her ankle, and described it as so painful she couldn’t stop screaming. 2, a sprain will only hurt when you try to move it, whereas a broken bone will hurt constantly. Still, there are very minor breaks (called ‘fractures’) that can feel more like a sprain; fortunately, there’s an easy test. A sprain will feel better after a few days using the RICE method (see the next section); if a fracture isn’t mending easily, it will take longer, and in that case you can see a doctor for an X-ray.

What hurts? My eyes. What kind of pain? A moderate ache, like there’s pressure inside my head. How long? Constant for a few hours. This is a sinus headache, likely caused by a minor head cold or some environmental irritant. Your sinuses run from your nostrils up through your forehead and around your eyes, such that sinus pressure can result in headaches.

So you see, first you match your symptoms up to a cause. If you don’t know what something means, ask people. Look stuff up and do research online (using reliable sources of course). This way, you can build your own library of pains and causes for them.

The next step is to match up the cause with the way to heal it.

How to Heal

Muscle pains, as characterized above by aching and stiffness, can be remedied in four ways. You can do all of these or just some of them.

  1. Take two 200mg tablets of ibuprofen. Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory, which means it reduces swelling. Knotted muscles tend to get swollen since blood can’t move through them normally. Ibuprofen is also an analgesic, so it helps relieve pain.
  2. Stretch the muscle out. If you don’t know how to stretch it, look up “muscles in the [body part that hurts]”, find the specific muscle or group you need to stretch, then look up stretches for it. The internet is a wonderful thing.
  3. Give yourself a massage. This will not feel nice, but it will ease your pain. First, get into a position such that you’re not using the muscle. Some muscles are easier to not-use than others: for your leg you can just sit on the ground, but for your neck you’ll have to rest your head on a steady surface (your knees, a countertop, etc) in such a way that you can still breathe. Then, press into the muscle, starting at one end and working toward the other steadily. If you feel a lump, that’s a knot. Put a little more pressure on it. Keep pushing on it harder until it starts to give way. If it slips out from under your fingers, don’t worry, just find it again and push on it some more. If it starts to feel like you’re going to get a bruise, stop with that knot and keep moving. After you’ve either rubbed out the knots or can’t work on them any longer, you’re done.
  4. Put a heating pad on the muscle. This is best used in combination with stretching and/or massage, because heat relaxes the muscle, but doesn’t inherently remove any knots by itself.

For sprains (i.e. knee, ankle, etc) or other kinds of strain, use the RICE method. For this, it is important that you do all the steps.

  1. Rest. Stop using that part of your body. Sit down, lay down, generally use it as little as possible. Rest will help it to heal. If you’ve sprained your ankle, say, use crutches to get around if you need to. (Crutches are not expensive, they’re like $10-20. I own a pair, and I’m young and broke.)
  2. Ice. Grab an ice pack, or simply a bag of frozen veggies in a pinch, and put it on the affected area. Leave it there for about 10-20 minutes, then take it off for the same amount of time. Repeat for the first day or two after your injury. When you injure something, your body sends lots of blood to the area to try and mend it, but your body does not know the meaning of the word “moderation”, so it frequently sends too much blood and the area swells up, making it actually harder to heal. Ice works to fix this because your body doesn’t want its blood getting cold, so if the area is cold, it takes the blood back to a warmer part of you so that your core temperature will stay the same. It’s the same reason the blood drains from your hands and feet when you’re outdoors in the winter. Important Note: ice hurts. It’s supposed to hurt. Don’t put thick towels under your ice pack until it doesn’t hurt anymore, because then it’s not doing any good. You need nothing more than a thin sheet to prevent frostbite.
  3. Compress. If you have Ace bandages, use them to wrap the affected area. If you have a compression sock, that’s even better. If you have neither of those things, buy some Ace bandages. It will serve you very well. Compression works for pretty much the same reason ice does: it helps stop inflammation. Be careful not to make your bandages too tight; it should feel like a necktie, not like a noose.
  4. Elevate. This is yet another method to remove excess blood from the area. (Yes, all of this is necessary. I told you your body has no idea what moderation is.) As a rule of thumb, you should elevate the injured body part in such a way that it’s above your heart. Do this as often as you can manage it, but unlike rest, you don’t need a great reason to stop: “I’m sick of this for now” is enough.

Middle and outer ear infections are the least problematic types of ear infections. You can treat them by disinfecting them.

Middle ear infections are characterized by aching pain in the ears and/or difficulty hearing, and are remedied by doing something to disinfect the ears. Use either isopropyl alcohol or hydrogen peroxide solution: you can find both at your local drugstore. Just stick some in your ear, leave it there for a few minutes, then drain it. Repeat 3 times daily till it goes away.

Outer ear infections are characterized by an itching or redness on the external, visible bit of the ear. You can fix them with antibiotic ointments.

If either of these things doesn’t go away within a few days, you probably have a more serious infection and need prescription antibiotics. Further, if you’ve got symptoms like fever and nausea, that’s probably an inner ear infection, which is very bad, see a doctor. (I sound like a warning label on a pill bottle, sheesh.)

Ingrown toenails are best treated early on. If you notice a stabbing pain in your toe when you walk, employ this remedy straight away. If you let it get bad, the surgery to get the nail removed is $150-200, but on the other hand, you can buy all the supplies to fix it early on for less than $10.

  1. Grab some toilet paper or tissues. You’ll need less than one piece. Get a pair of tweezers, a pencil, or some other relatively pointy object. Finally, get some epsom salts, and a container big enough to fit your foot in (you should probably buy one specially for this purpose, since you don’t want to use the container for anything else afterward; epsom salts are toxic).
  2. Fill the container with very hot water (slightly hotter than you can stand to stick your hand in) and mix in the appropriate amount of epsom salts (it’ll say on the box, but it’s probably about a quarter cup of salt to a gallon of water or something). The mixing process will cool the water down slightly such that it’s now about as hot as you can stand. Stick your whole foot in and soak it for half an hour or something like that. Your foot should get super wrinkly.
  3. When you’re done with that, take your foot out. Rip off a tiny corner of your toilet paper or tissue, wad it up, and shove it under the offending ingrown toenail. Shove as much as you can under there, then wait. The pressure from the wadded-up tissue should push the nail up, and since the epsom salts have softened everything up, this is an easy enough job.

Go through this process in full every day until your toenail pokes right out where it belongs, and in the future, don’t clip your toenails too short.

Sinus headaches and sinus problems in general (including a stuffed-up nose as a result of a cold) can be remedied with a very strange but simple method: neti potting.

A neti pot is a small piece of plastic or pottery shaped like a squashed teapot. There are two holes: a big one in the top that you put the saline water into, and a little one at the end of the elongated spout that you stick up one nostril. Here’s a modern one with a fancy soft tip that comes with saline packets.

Basically, what you do is you fill it with saline solution (I know the exact formula for this one since I do it so often, I’m very susceptible to sinus problems)—1/4 teaspoon salt to 1 cup water—and stick the spout in one nostril, doesn’t matter which. Tilt your head to the side and tilt the neti pot up such that it’s pouring the saline into your nose. Since your nose and sinuses are actually just one long tube, the water will wash out all the gunk and come out the other side.

Make sure you tilt your head forward and lean such that the water isn’t coming down your throat and out of your mouth. (Oh yeah, those are connected too. Basically the whole human body is one long meat hose.) It might take some work to get right, but it’s not difficult. If I was able to get it right at age six, you can do it.

Also, if the saline doesn’t come out the other side the first time, don’t worry. That’s just because your sinuses are too blocked for the saline to flow through. Just drain the saline from that side (lean over a sink, then wipe your nose) and switch to the other side. Pouring saline in from both sides will help to loosen and eventually dislodge the gunk that’s causing the congestion and also probably the headache/infection/post-nasal drip/whatever else. It’s weird, but it works.

As with the pain to cause relationship, you can do research regarding the cause to remedy relationship. Just understand that companies want to not get sued, so they’ll tell you to go to a doctor if anything even potentially bad might happen. Look up “home remedies” before you go hit the UrgentCare.

Questions, comments? Any good remedy you’d like people to know? Add it to the comments section below!

Why You Should Learn a Living Language

The benefits of learning a language are numerous. Bilingualism in general has many mental benefits. The research that demonstrates these things, though, doesn’t tell you a crucial point: all languages are not created equal. Specifically, living languages are very different from dead ones.

I spent, depending on how intensively you define the word “studying”, between four and ten years studying a dead language. I started around age seven with Rosetta Stone Latin (yes, that exists), and studied intermittently through elementary and middle school before taking four years of intensive high school Latin, culminating in the AP test. With the exception of two brief classes in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, the vast majority of my experience in learning languages has been with a dead one.

Last year was my final one taking Latin. After a little while, I detoxed myself of the apathy I’d acquired for anything resembling school, and I kind of missed it. Silly, right? Missing studying vocabulary lists? And maybe it is silly, but it happened anyway. So, intermittently in accordance with a busy schedule, I took up Japanese.

Immediately I was shocked by the differences in learning methods. First, a living language necessitates pronunciation. My proficiency with Latin was orders of magnitude greater than my current proficiency with Japanese: circa last spring, I could read and understand complicated books written in Latin. I read the Aeneid and the Gallic Wars in the original, which is immensely difficult: they’re huge, thick books with tiny type and long, complicated sentences. By contrast, I can hardly form simple sentences in Japanese.

But you can get to where I was in Latin without ever speaking a single word out loud.

Seriously! I learned nearly everything from written words on a page. I read silently, studied flashcards silently, translated silently. I only ever spoke a word of Latin aloud under two circumstances: I was in my one-hour once-a-week online class and I was reading a passage aloud to the class; or my linguistically-inclined brother had asked me the Latin word for something.

By contrast, the veritable instant that I began my study of Japanese I was talking. To an empty room as a pronunciation exercise, but still. The pronunciation actually mattered. I watched Japanese cartoons (commonly called anime) and repeated what the characters were saying under my breath. “Nan desu ka?” a character on the screen would say, and I’d mutter under my breath, “nan desu ka”. I learned so much vocabulary this way, and I learned it painlessly.

That brings me to another point. With a living language, there is media in that language. It’s possible to learn words and phrases purely from watching and reading content. With a dead language, this method of “learning by input” is impossible: there is no content to consume. There is no anime in Latin. I learned exclusively through exhaustive memorization of grammar. It was boring and uninteresting, and now, six months or so after finishing my studies, I’m hard-pressed to remember most of it.

The combination of these two factors—lack of pronunciation and lack of auditory input—made me feel less like I was actually fluent in Latin, and more like I was simply knowledgeable enough about its inner workings that I could basically deconstruct it like a puzzle. I think that, even at the height of my Latin knowledge, if I’d been teleported back to Ancient Rome and met with a native speaker, I could not hold a conversation.

In other words, I didn’t speak the language, I could only deconstruct it.

To hammer in this distinction, let me ask you a question: do you know what a pluperfect is? No? Here’s an example: “We had arrived.” I guarantee you use the pluperfect all the time, but you never knew what it was – and you never needed to. But with Latin, I was backwards. I knew the grammar and all its terms inside and out – if you asked me what the pluperfect subjunctive ending in the third conjugation was, not only would I have understood you, but I’d also have been able to supply the answer. However, I had literally never used any of those words in an actual conversation.

This is the most important difference between learning a living language and learning a dead one. If you learn a living language, you will come out of your studies with an ability that is practically useful: the ability to have conversations. You don’t come out of studying a dead language with that. You only come out of studying a dead language with the ability to deconstruct it.

What does all this mean for you? Take a closer look at the article I linked at the top. The reason bilingualism is helpful for improving mental acuity is that “both languages of a bilingual speaker are constantly active to some degree, even in strongly monolingual contexts”. Aka, the auditory and visual processing for both languages is always online. This makes the biggest difference in conversation, where the bilingual person’s brain has to continuously figure out which language it should use to process information: “this difficult selection is made in constant online linguistic processing by bilinguals is that the general-purpose executive control system is recruited into linguistic processing, a configuration not found for monolinguals.”

But wait, didn’t I just get done saying that one of the chief differences between living and dead languages is that you can learn a dead language completely without ever having a conversation?

Yes. That is exactly my point.

If you’re planning on learning a language for purposes of improving your mental abilities, I highly recommend learning a living one. Looking at the reasons behind the statement that “bilingualism improves your brain”, it seems to me that learning a dead language is much less likely to benefit you than a living one.

Plus, we shouldn’t deny the benefit of having conversations with others in their native tongues. To quote Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”