Stress helps wound care — at least if you're a mouse

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Gary Tetz
Gary Tetz

Lost in all the recent hubbub about the Ebola virus, Justin Bieber going to anger management class and a guy eating a nursing home resident's pain patch, is breaking news from the exciting world of stress, mice, science and skin.

Now, even though I still remember Avogadro's number from high school chemistry, I can't claim to be a scientist. So I'll probably never understand what led researchers to pause, put hands thoughtfully to chins, and say, “Hmmmmm, do you think acute psychological stress would help mouse skin heal?” But that appears to be precisely what happened.

Basically, they gathered a bunch of extra mice they found scampering around the lab, fed them free cheese and crumpets and asked for volunteers willing to suffer some minor dermatological discomfort for the good of human wound care research. It was like one of those vacation time-share ambushes where you get a free trip to an exotic locale for the privilege of making a horrible financial decision that will haunt you the rest of your life.

Once the mice had consulted their attorneys and the proper releases had been signed, they laid their cute little mouse cheeks on tiny little lab pillows while scientists gently and humanely irritated the skin on one ear. Again, I need to stress that this process was entirely consensual, and in fact, several of the study participants reported an increased sense of meaning and purpose. “It just felt good to contribute to something bigger than myself,” said one. “I'd definitely do it again with the other ear.”

As inflammation began to rage, some of the mice were returned to the luxurious cages that had been provided free for study volunteers. But another less fortunate group was singled out to experience high levels of stress by being forced to spend 18 hours a day for four days in an extremely confined space. It was like they were sent to work in a human telemarketing call center.

Long story short, it all turned out okay and everyone is still living happily ever after. But shockingly, the skin of the stressed mice healed much faster, an outcome explained in the press release as “the anti-inflammatory effects of glucocorticoids — steroid hormones — produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress.” Unfortunately, even after all this time and expense, researchers were unable to determine whether the country mouse's wounds healed more rapidly than the city mouse. But they plan to find out.

It's difficult to overestimate, or underestimate, or even estimate, what the practical implications of these findings will be for the future of long-term care wound care strategies. We should definitely think carefully before purposely stressing our residents just to help them heal faster. But there's a spooky coincidence about all this that brings the entire question full circle.

Avogadro's number equals one mole, which besides being the scientific unit of measure I recall from chemistry class, is also a member of the extended mouse family. In fact, I once knew an angry girl who sat outside the opening of a mole tunnel in her backyard waiting to whack one on the head with a garden shovel.

But after causing all that rodent stress, she couldn't be bothered to measure the rate of cranial healing.

Obviously, she's not a scientist either.

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold Medal winner in Humor Writing in the 2014 Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He has amused, informed and sometimes befuddled long-term care readers worldwide since his debut with the former SNALF.com at the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.

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Things I Think

Things I Think is written by longtime industry columnist Gary Tetz, who resides in Walla Walla, WA. Since his debut with SNALF.com at the end of a previous century, he has continued to amuse, inform and sometimes befuddle long-term care readers worldwide.

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