January 16, 2014


The New Science of Overcoming Arthritis: Prevent or Reverse Your Pain, Discomfort, and Limitations. By C. Thomas Vangsness, Jr., M.D., with Greg Ptacek. Da Capo. $15.99.

Scared Stiff: Everything You Need to Know about 50 Famous Phobias. By Sara Latta. Zest Books. $12.99.

     Titles tend to overstate. The new book by C. Thomas Vangsness, Jr., and Greg Ptacek will not really show readers how to overcome arthritis, which is an incurable disease – although it will show how to manage the condition to prevent it from ruling your everyday life. The book by Sara Latta will scarcely explain everything about 50 phobias, not all of which are in fact famous, but it will provide an interesting, if superficial, look at some things that some people fear well beyond all reason – and explain why this may be so, and what phobics may be able to do to cope better.

     Title aside, the Vangsness/Ptacek book is both a clearly written discussion of what arthritis is and how to cope with it, and a surprisingly entertaining work about a disease that is anything but fun to experience. For example, Vangsness – professor of orthopedic surgery and chief of sports medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine – interestingly explains the possible connection between a Time magazine cover story in 2004 and the “welcome but unintended consequences” of discovering that the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug Celebrex appeared to reduce people’s risk of developing intestinal polyps. This in turn led to a new focus on inflammation as a core cause of many bodily ailments – a focus that continues to drive a considerable amount of research today. And this is directly relevant to arthritis, since the notion that inflammation could “actually cause the loss of cartilage that is the main symptom of osteoarthritis” flew in the face of the long-accepted medical belief that arthritis occurred because the body’s cartilage simply wore down with age. Vangsness and Ptacek present this sort of research-oriented diagnostic information with surprisingly amusing chapter subheads: “Of Mice and Meniscus,” “Keeping Your Gait Straight.” And they note that although “more Americans are now at an age when they are likely to suffer from osteoarthritis,” they also comment that this “doesn’t explain the spike in reports of lack of mobility among arthritis sufferers.” This in turn leads to a chapter whose title, enclosed by the authors in quotation marks, is “Obeseritis,” where they explain that “obesity and arthritis have become so intertwined that it warrants a whole new term to describe this phenomenon.” This book is not designed to scold people into better eating habits, though: it offers “seven proven principles” for dietary improvement and weight loss, but does so nonjudgmentally, and also has a brief explanation of the psychology that may underlie the tendency to overeat. And this is just part of the narrative here: arthritis drugs and supplements, surgery and alternative therapies, stem-cell research and other topics are covered with plain-spokenness, in a style that is surprisingly breezy in a medical book – even one written for popular consumption. There are patient case studies here, showing different forms of arthritis (there are more than 100 in all, with the most common, osteoarthritis, affecting one-sixth of American adults and being the nation’s leading cause of disability) and different approaches to treatment; a discussion of the importance of getting the right diagnosis (which may seem an obvious need, but which is complicated when it comes to arthritic ailments); a look at post-surgical sex life; an interesting historical discussion of the original “snake oil,” in the context of the placebo effect leading to improved symptoms in many people; a look at the use of chiropractors, hypnosis, biofeedback and other techniques; and a great deal more. The book’s style prevents this wealth of information from turning into an indigestible lump – and some parts of the book, such as Vangsness’ comments on “my unlikely stem cell journey,” will be intriguing even for people who are not arthritis sufferers. In all, The New Science of Overcoming Arthritis is a first-rate roundup of current thinking about the disease (more properly, “diseases”), about treatment and about where research in the field is going now. Not all that is here is really new, and “coping with” arthritis is more the book’s focus than “overcoming” it, but the book itself has so much of value in it that it can easily be forgiven a certain amount of hyperbole in the title.

     There is no significant medical value in Scared Stiff, but treatment is not the purpose of this book, even though Latta ends the work with a few pages about ways in which phobias can be overcome. The idea here is to provide mildly titillating descriptions of such phobias as astraphobia (thunderstorms), botanophobia (plants), didaskaleinophobia (school), gephyrophobia (crossing bridges), and mysophobia (germs). Each short discussion of a phobia explains where its name comes from (most have Greek roots), what the phobia entails, and what may cause it (anything from childhood experiences to genetic predisposition). Many entries list “famous phobics,” such as soccer star David Beckham for ataxophobia (disorder) and actor Matt Damon for ophidiophobia (snakes). There are some rather repetitious “Overcoming the Fear” sections that mostly refer readers to the same few back-of-book pages, and many sections include “Scare Quotes” that are often neither scary nor particularly relevant to the phobia just discussed. The most interesting thing about Scared Stiff is its inclusion not only of well-known phobias such as claustrophobia (confined spaces) and acrophobia (heights) but also little-known ones such as pogonophobia (beards) and swinophobia (pigs). Some phobias discussed here have little currency in modern life, such as wiccaphobia (witches); others are entirely modern, such as nomophobia (fear of being out of mobile-phone contact, which medical authorities rightfully do not regard as anything like a classic phobia). Readers interested in fears such as kakorraphiaphobia (failure) and kinemortophobia (zombies) will get some basic information on them here, but only that: Latta is determinedly superficial, even lighthearted, in writing about conditions that in classic presentation are genuinely debilitating and go well past the ordinarily frightening. Indeed, Latta’s failure to make it clear just how far beyond the merely scary a phobia is tends to trivialize these conditions, which can significantly interfere with sufferers’ daily living and overall quality of life. Nevertheless, this (+++) book has a good deal that is interesting in it, simply because the human mind has so many ways to turn against itself – some with an underlying rational basis, such as pyrophobia (fire) and selachophobia (sharks), others rooted more in superstition and social awkwardness than anything else, such as triskaidekaphobia (the number 13) and urophobia (urination). Expect nothing deep, nothing highly meaningful, but many forays into unusual thought patterns, and you will find Scared Stiff as enjoyable as it is intended to be – which is far more enjoyable than the experience of suffering from any true phobia at all.

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