Sword swallowing is about as safe as it looks.
As one of the world's oldest medical journals, The BMJ is respected as a bastion of insight, knowledge, and the advancement of medical science.
But, once a year, it lets its hair down for the Christmas edition, and it's a joy to behold.
The BMJ began its life in 1840, but it wasn't until 1982 that the first dedicated Christmas edition was published. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength. Although the festive edition's papers have a humorous bent, there is still a decent regard for research protocol — it's just that the subject matter is slightly more low brow.
As Santa and his reindeer rapidly approach the baby in a manger, we thought it might be a nice idea to revisit some of our favorite Christmas articles. And, with more than 1,000 to choose from, we shouldn't run out of mirth.
So, grab a glass of eggnog, put on your gaudy Christmas-themed socks, and take a look at these festive wonders.
1. Where do the teaspoons go?
The problem of teaspoons vanishing from shared kitchen spaces has plagued workplaces since the invention of hot drinks. In their timely paper, the authors "set out to answer the age-old question 'Where have all the bloody teaspoons gone?'"
So, the researchers planted marked teaspoons in coffee-making areas across their workplace at the Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health in Melbourne, Australia. And, as predicted, the teaspoons went walkabout.
When they extrapolated their data, the size and scope of the problem was laid bare: "If we assume that the annual rate of teaspoon loss per employee can be applied to the entire workforce of the city of Melbourne (about 2.5 million)," they say, "an estimated 18 million teaspoons are going missing in Melbourne each year."
They add, "Laid end to end, these lost teaspoons would cover over 2,700 kilometers — the length of the entire coastline of Mozambique — and weigh over 360 metric tons — the approximate weight of four adult blue whales."
These findings, although not surprising, have a wide-ranging impact on humanity. As the authors write in their conclusions, "Teaspoon displacement and loss leads to the use of forks, knives, and staplers to measure out coffee and sugar, inevitably causing a reduction in employee satisfaction." Truly troubling.
2. The side effects of sword swallowing
It doesn't take a genius to guess that sword swallowing isn't the safest hobby. However, it has received surprisingly little scientific attention. In last year's Christmas issue, a team of eager scientists finally took a deeper look.
They contacted the Sword Swallowers' Association International, who allowed the team to send questionnaires to their members. Almost 50 sword swallowers responded.
Common complaints were sore throats and lower chest pain after practicing or performing for longer than usual.
Other injuries were more serious. As they explain, "Six suffered perforation of the pharynx or esophagus. Three of these had surgery to the neck, one having a 1.5 centimeter laceration at the level of D2 and a pneumothorax, one a pinhole laceration at C6 and surgical emphysema, and the other having a pharyngeal tear."
The research team explains, "Major complications are more likely when the swallower is distracted or swallows multiple or unusual swords or when previous injury is present. Perforations mainly involve the esophagus and usually have a good prognosis."
So, that's good to know.
3. Heavy metal under the microscope
A Christmas 2008 paper entitled "Head and neck injury risks in heavy metal: head bangers stuck between rock and a hard bass" investigates the misunderstood art of headbanging.
It might look cool, but it could give you whiplash.
Declan Patton and Andrew McIntosh, at the University of New South Wales in Australia, were concerned about the potential health hazards associated with the popular dance move.
Surely, whipping one's head around with such wanton abandon has the potential to cause a mild traumatic brain injury.
After doing "research" — which involved attending the concerts of rock bands such as Skid Row and Whitesnake — they conducted a biomechanical analysis. They concluded that yes, head banging could cause injury if the tempo of the track was high enough and the angle of motion great enough.
They explain, "There is an increasing risk of neck injury starting at tempos of 130 beats per minute related to the range of motion in the headbanging style," ending their concerning paper with some advice:
"Possible interventions to reduce the risk of injury caused by headbanging include limiting the range of neck motion through a formal training programme delivered before a concert."
They suggest replacing heavy metal with other genres of music, including, "Michael Bolton, Celine Dion, Enya, and Richard Clayderman," or starting to wearing a neck brace. Sadly, I can't see any of that advice being heeded.
4. Chocolate investigation
In clinical settings, boxes of chocolates are a common sight, often donated by patients and family members. These chocolates disappear swiftly, and it is not always clear who has consumed them. This can be a catalyst for staff unrest.
In the 2013 Christmas edition, registrar Parag R. Gajendragadkar and colleagues set out to explore who was to blame for the disappearing act of chocolate. The team put out various types of chocolates in three hospital locations and charted their paths from box to belly.
Once the data had been analyzed, some trends became apparent. The average survival time for a box of chocolates was just 51 minutes, following an exponential decay process with a rapid "grab" phase.
The authors write, "Overall, ward chocolate consumers preferred Roses chocolates compared with Quality Street chocolates. Taken as a group, healthcare assistants and nurses were the largest consumers of chocolate."
However, they note that healthcare assistants and nurses make up a greater percentage of staff than, for instance, consultants. More analysis is needed.
5. The trials of a unicyclist
In 2007, Sam Shuster — an honorary consultant and emeritus professor of dermatology — took up unicycling.
What would you shout at a man on a unicycle?
His Christmas paper documents people's reactions to his new and strange mode of transport.
Having long been a cyclist, he indulged himself in some of his "more extreme inclinations" when he retired. And because he was one of the only unicyclists in the immediate area, he garnered a fair amount of attention — and people weren't shy about interacting.
What surprised Shuster most was that the responses "were stereotyped and predictable. I realized that this indicated an underlying biological phenomenon and set about its study."
A great many of the comments he received were similar, often along the lines of "Lost your wheel?" and "Do you know you've lost your handlebar?"
Among his observations:
"Less than 5 percent of people — mostly elderly men, women, and teenage girls — showed no reaction. About 1–2 percent of people expressed anger, distaste, or fear of collision, mostly elderly women and some men walking with sticks."
He relates some of the memorable responses, which include: "Sudden loud shouts, then they threw small pebbles," "Fall off granddad," and, randomly, a woman who shouted, "You should dress up as Santa for the children."
In his discussion, Shuster explains, "Most men clearly meant their responses to be funny and snide, and they were often given as a put-down. Women, however, usually responded with pleasure and admiration and were concerned about safety."
He observed that as boys became teenagers, their responses became more hostile. Then, as they became adults, the hostility was masked by "humor," and then, as they grew into older men, the response softened further.
As far as Shuster is concerned, "[T]he simplest and most direct explanation is androgen-induced virility." Testosterone rises in males throughout their teens, peaks in their early 20s, and steadily declines from then on. This matches the level of aggression toward unicyclists rather well.
Further studies will be required, of course.
6. Testing the theory of beauty sleep
Specifically, their objective was "to investigate whether sleep-deprived people are perceived as less healthy, less attractive, and more tired than after a normal night's sleep."
In a nutshell, the researchers photographed 46 people after a normal (8-hour) sleep and then after 31 hours of wakefulness. Their photos were rated by 65 untrained observers. They wanted to see whether or not the phrase "beauty sleep" rings true under scientific investigation.
The conclusions make unsurprising reading: "Our findings show that sleep-deprived people appear less healthy, less attractive, and more tired compared with when they are well-rested."
So, beauty sleep is a thing — make sure you get some rest.
That concludes our meander through Christmas past. If you want a take-home message, consider hiding your teaspoons, only swallowing one sword at a time, listening to Michael Bolton, and getting some sleep.