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  • January 14, 2022

    By Allison Larson, MD

    Whether you’re a winter sports enthusiast or spend the season curled up by the fireplace, the low humidity, bitter winds, and dry indoor heat that accompany cold weather can deplete your skin’s natural moisture. Dry skin is not only painful, uncomfortable, and irritating; it also can lead to skin conditions such as eczema, which results in itchy, red, bumpy skin patches. 

    Follow these six tips to prevent and treat skin damage caused by winter dryness.

    1. Do: Wear sunscreen all year long.

    UV rays can easily penetrate cloudy skies to dry out exposed skin. And when the sun is shining, snow and ice reflect its rays, increasing UV exposure. 

    Getting a sunburn can cause severe dryness, premature aging of the skin, and skin cancer. Snow or shine, apply sunscreen before participating in any outdoor activity during the winter—especially if you take a tropical vacation to escape the cold; your skin is less accustomed to sunlight and more likely to burn quickly.

    The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends sunscreen that offers protection against both UVA and UVB rays, and offers a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.

    That being said, if you are considering laser skin treatments to reduce wrinkles, hair, blemishes, or acne scars, winter is a better time to receive these procedures. Sun exposure shortly after a treatment increases the risk of hyperpigmentation (darkening of the skin), and people are less likely to spend time outside during the winter.

    Related reading: 7 Simple Ways to Protect Your Skin in the Sun

    2. Do: Skip products with drying ingredients.

    Soaps or facial products you use in warm weather with no issues may irritate your skin during colder seasons. This is because they contain ingredients that can cause dryness, but the effects aren’t noticeable until they’re worsened by the dry winter climate.

    You may need to take a break from:

    • Anti-acne medications containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid
    • Antibacterial and detergent-based soap
    • Anything containing fragrance, from soap to hand sanitizer

    Hand washing and the use of hand sanitizer, which contains a high level of skin-drying alcohol, cannot be avoided; we need to maintain good hand hygiene to stop the spread of germs. If your job or lifestyle requires frequent hand washing or sanitizing, routinely apply hand cream throughout the day as well.

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have seen a lot of people develop hand dermatitis—a condition with itchy, burning skin that can swell and blister—due to constant hand washing. Sometimes the fix is as simple as changing the soap they're using. Sensitive-skin soap is the best product for dry skin; it typically foams up less but still cleans the skin efficiently.

    3. Do: Pay closer attention to thick skin.

    Areas of thin skin, such as the face and backs of your hands, are usually exposed to the wind and sun the most. It’s easy to tell when they start drying out. But the thick skin on your palms and bottoms of your feet is also prone to dryness—and tends to receive less attention.

    When thick skin gets dry, fissures form. You’ll see the surface turn white and scaly; then deep, linear cracks will appear. It isn’t as pliable as thin skin. When you’re constantly on your feet or using your hands to work, cook, and everything in between, dry thick skin cracks instead of flexing with your movements. 

    To soften cracked skin, gently massage a heavy-duty moisturizer—such as Vaseline—into the affected area once or twice a day. You can also talk with your doctor about using a skin-safe adhesive to close the fissures and help them heal faster.

    Related reading:  Follow these 5 Tips for Healthy Skin

    4. Don’t believe the myth that drinking more water will fix dry skin.

    Contrary to popular belief, the amount of water or fluids you drink does not play a major role in skin hydration—unless you’re severely dehydrated. In the winter, especially, dry skin is caused by external elements; it should be treated from the outside as well. 

    The best way to keep skin hydrated and healthy is to apply fragrance-free cream or ointment—not lotion—to damp skin after a shower or bath.
    Some people need additional moisturizers for their hands, legs, or other areas prone to dryness.

    While some lotions are made better than others, most are a combination of water and powder that evaporates quickly. Creams and ointments work better because they contain ingredients that can help rebuild your skin barrier. 

    Look for products with ceramide, a fatty acid that helps rebuild the fat and protein barrier that holds your skin cells together. The AAD also recommends moisturizing ingredients such as:

    • Dimethicone
    • Glycerin
    • Jojoba oil
    • Lanolin
    • Mineral oil
    • Petrolatum
    • Shea butter

    For severely dry skin, you can try a “wet wrap” technique:

    1. Rinse a pair of tight-fitting pajamas in warm water and wring them out so they’re damp, not wet.
    2. Apply cream or ointment to your skin.
    3. Put on the damp pajamas, followed by a pair of dry pajamas, and wear the ensemble for several hours.

    Dampness makes your skin more permeable and better able to absorb hydrating products. If the wet wrap or over-the-counter products aren’t working for you, talk with a dermatologist about prescription skin hydration options. 

    Drinking more water isn’t the answer to dry winter skin. The best solution is to apply fragrance-free cream or ointment directly to damp skin. Get more cold weather #SkinCareTips from a dermatologist in this blog:
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    5. Don’t confuse skin conditions with dryness.

    Skin conditions are often mistaken for dry skin because peeling or flaking are common symptoms. Redness of the skin or itching in addition to dryness and flaking indicates a skin condition that may need more than an over-the-counter moisturizer.

    Skin cells are anchored together by a lipid and protein layer (like a brick and mortar wall). With very dry skin, the seal on this wall or barrier is not fully intact and water evaporates out of the skin’s surface. The skin will become itchy and red in addition to scaly or flaky. If you experience these symptoms, visit with a dermatologist.

    6. Don’t wait for symptoms to take care of dry skin.

    Be proactive—the best way to maintain moisture is to apply hydrating creams and ointments directly to your skin on a regular basis. Start by applying them as part of your morning routine. Once you get used to that, add a nighttime application. And carry a container of it when you’re on the go or keep it in an easily accessible location at work.


    You can’t avoid dry air, but you can take precautions to reduce its harsh effects on your skin. If over-the-counter products don’t seem to help, our dermatologists can provide an individualized treatment plan. Hydrated skin is healthy skin!

    Does your skin get drier as the air gets colder?

    Our dermatologists can help.

    Call 202-877-DOCS (3627) or Request an Appointment

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  • April 17, 2017

    By MedStar Health

    I often speak with women who are curious – and sometimes apprehensive – about birth control. This gives me the opportunity to clear up misconceptions about various contraceptive methods, especially because I’ve found that many women have ideas about these contraceptives that don’t match today’s reality.

    I see many women in Washington, D.C., who have demanding careers and busy lives. The last thing on their minds is having a baby. That isn’t to say they never want to have children, but they certainly want to have control over when that happens.

    These women might be missing out on birth control options that would work great for their lifestyle simply because they don’t have all the facts or even know that these options exist.  

    Which is more effective: birth control pills or an intrauterine device (IUD)?

    The answer is a bit tricky. In theory, the birth control pill can be just as effective as the IUD: preventing pregnancy more than 99 percent of the time. But you need to take the pill every day, at the same time each day, and every missed dose reduces its effectiveness. The “typical” effectiveness of the pill – or how effective it is during measured, actual use that accounts for incorrect and inconsistent doses – is only 91 percent.

    Things come up. Life happens. You forget to pack your pills before leaving on a trip or become overwhelmed with school or work and forget to take them. Regardless of the reason, many women find it a hassle to stick to the birth control pill. Unfortunately, not enough women know enough about their options – or even know they have options beyond the pill and condoms.

    Benefits of long-acting reversible contraception

    Long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) refers to birth control methods that are inserted, implanted or injected into the body and don’t require a woman to actively manage her contraception. LARCs can block pregnancy for extended periods of time – up to 10 years depending on the method.

    LARCs include:

    • IUDs: Intrauterine devices are inserted into the uterus and can prevent pregnancy for up to 10 years. Your doctor can insert the IUD right in their office. There’s no need for an operating room. There are two types: a hormonal IUD and a copper IUD, which does not contain hormones.   
    • Birth control implants: Implants such as Nexplanon consist of a rod inserted under the skin of the arm that periodically releases hormones to prevent pregnancy. They last up to three years.
    • Injections: Contraceptive injections such as Depo-Provera contain the hormone progestogen and last up to three months.

    The great thing about LARCs is that using them “perfectly” is effortless. Once the device is inserted, it prevents pregnancy with no further work on your part.

    “Using long-acting reversible #contraception ‘perfectly’ requires no additional effort from the woman.” via @MWHC

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    As the “reversible” part of the name suggests, these devices are not permanent. If you want to become pregnant, we’ll simply remove the LARC and your fertility will return almost immediately. 

    Clearing up the misconceptions about IUDs


    copper IUD

    As I mentioned earlier, I hear a lot of misconceptions about different kinds of birth control, and particularly IUDs. IUD use became more widespread in the mid-20th century, but they have changed dramatically since then, particularly in two ways:

    Safety: You may have heard from your grandmother or mother that IUDs are not safe. This is mostly because of the Dalkon Shield, which was commonly used in the 1970s and resulted in serious complications, even death, for the women who used it. Today’s IUDs are much safer, and serious side effects are rare.

    Who can use them: In the past, IUDs were only recommended for women who had already given birth. Today, they can be used in women as young as 16 and through the perimenopausal years.

    IUDs are a safe, effective method of birth control for nearly all women. I’m glad to see this reality reflected in the number of women who are choosing to use an IUD.

    In 1995, just .8 percent of women on birth control used an IUD for contraception. By 2012, that number had grown to 10.3 percent, or nearly 4 million women. That’s almost a 1,200 percent increase!

    “The percentage of women using an IUD for birth control has grown almost 1,200% since 1995.” via @MedStarWHC

    Click to Tweet

    The birth control pill is still the most popular contraceptive method, but it’s encouraging to see more women realize they have other options available. In fact, I prescribe fewer prescriptions for oral contraceptives and insert more LARCs every year.

    Discuss your birth control options, including LARCs, with your Ob/Gyn during your annual exam. Generally speaking, LARCs are a great option for women who don’t want to get pregnant for three years or longer. However, as with any contraceptive method, there can be side effects, so make sure you understand the possible complications.

    I’m thrilled to see LARCs find a renewed place and purpose in women’s reproductive care. In the future, I hope to see even more outreach in traditionally underserved communities so that more women have the opportunity to access these safe, effective and long-lasting contraceptives.

    Request an appointment to discuss your birth control options with a gynecologist.

  • April 13, 2017

    By MedStar Health

    “Why do I have to drive into the middle of D.C. to a burn center? There’s a hospital right by me.”

    We hear this question all the time. I answer that burns are wounds, but wounds aren’t burns. Burn injuries are unique and require specialized treatment.

    Dr. Johnson
    Dr. Jeffrey Shupp, director, Burn Center

    Even burns that appear mild or small can turn into serious injuries without proper treatment. Too often I treat patients whose wounds become infected after non-specialized treatment at a local clinic or wound center – even those that say they treat burns. It’s unfortunate when we have to perform surgery or a skin graft on a patient who may have been healed by now if they had come to a burn center for their initial treatment.

    About 486,000 burn injuries require medical treatment in the United States every year – and they can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any age. We treat about 1,000 patients a year, with 600 admitted to the hospital.

    When should I go to a burn center for treatment?

     “I don’t want to bother the burn center specialists. It’s just a little burn. They’ll think I’m overreacting.”

    I can’t say it enough: You’re not bothering us, and we don’t think you’re overreacting. We’d much rather see you now for a burn that doesn’t require a lot of care, than to later manage an infected wound or perform surgery that could have been avoided.

    Even if you think it’s just a mild burn, go to a burn center. via @MedStarWHC

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    The American Burn Association has a list of criteria  for which they recommend you receive treatment from a burn center, including:

    • Burns that involve the face, hands, feet, genitalia or major joints
    • Third-degree burns, which can appear whitish, charred or translucent with no pinprick sensation in the burned area
    • Burns that cover more than 10 percent of total body surface area
    •  Electrical or chemical burns
    • If you have pre-existing medical conditions that can complicate recovery

    If you have a burn that meets these criteria or that you would like a burn specialist to look at, call 202-719-0839 or click below to make an appointment.

    Request an Appointment

    What makes a burn center unique?

    “I liked the plastic surgeon who performed my surgery last year. Can’t he do a skin graft?”

    Surgeons outside of burn centers can perform amazing skin grafts and debridement (removing damaged tissue from a wound). But what makes a burn center unique is the team approach we take to treating burn patients.

    Burn center specialists are dedicated to treating only burn patients. They can include:

    • Burn rehabilitation specialists
    • Burn surgeons who have additional training in burn, trauma or critical care
    • Dietitians
    • Nurses with special training in caring for burn patients
    • Pharmacists
    • Social workers

    When you’re not treated at a burn center, coordinating care becomes more difficult. You may have surgery at one place and rehabilitation across town. Getting plugged in with a burn center from the beginning makes coordinating downstream care that much easier and can benefit your physical and psychosocial health.

    The biggest progress made in burn injury survival did not come from antibiotics or advances in critical care. It was the organization and verification of regional burn centers.

    Centers such as The Burn Center at MedStar Washington Hospital Center must meet rigorous criteria to be considered a burn center. There may not always be one right next door. After ours, the next closest burns centers are in Baltimore and Richmond, Va.

    D.C. residents are fortunate to have a burn center nearby. For those who do not have a burn center in their community, travel to the nearest burn center for care if you can. I want you to receive appropriate care from the beginning so you can avoid potential complications down the road.

  • April 12, 2017

    By MedStar Health

    If you are currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer, it’s important to know about possible complications that may occur afterward. One such complication is lymphedema. Lymphedema is the persistent swelling of the arm that may occur after mastectomy and lymph node removal during breast cancer treatment, due to the buildup of excess lymphatic fluid.

    But what are the risk factors of lymphedema? Moreover, what treatment options are available for those who receive this diagnosis?

    Factors That Increase the Risk of Lymphedema

    At MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, we have observed that approximately 20 percent of women who undergo breast cancer treatment will end up with lymphedema. While there is no way of knowing during treatment who would be diagnosed, there are some risk factors we’re aware of that may increase the chances of getting lymphedema after breast cancer treatment.

    For example, women with a higher chance of lymphedema have had many of their lymph nodes removed. Another risk factor is exposure to radiation during treatment, since this can cause scarring and blockages. Women who smoke or are obese are also more likely of developing lymphedema after breast cancer treatment.

    While not all risk factors are avoidable, some are. If a patient is looking for ways to reduce their risks, smoking cessation and weight loss are two options.

    Diagnosis of Lymphedema

    Some patients get relief by having the affected area massaged and the excess fluid drained. But most patients end up needing surgical treatment for more long-term relief.

    To find out the best treatment options, you should meet with a multidisciplinary team that includes oncologists, physical therapists and other medical professionals who will help with diagnosis and immediate action.

    A common way to diagnose lymphedema is called bioimpedance, which is a way to measure electrical flow through body tissue. Once it is confirmed that the lymphatic channel - which contains clear, thin lymphatic fluid - is blocked, a team of doctors will determine the best treatment. In the meantime, they will try to reduce the swelling, often by wrapping the arm with a sleeve to get some relief.

    Treatment Options for Lymphedema

    One surgical option for mild to moderate lymphedema is a lymph node transfer.  Lymph nodes are located in multiple places throughout your body; as a result, doctors can take lymph nodes from anywhere - such as the neck, groin or back - and transplant them wherever they’re needed using a microsurgical technique.

    It’s akin to bringing in a pump and activating it by making sure blood can flow in and out to avoid swelling.

    Another procedure that may be considered is lymphaticovenular bypass, also known as LV bypass. This is referred to as super-microsurgery, as it involves connecting the lymphatic channel right into a vein to ensure proper flow.

    If lymphedema is more severe, liposuction may need to be performed on this area. This surgery uses a cannula to suck out the extra swollen tissue and fat that’s behind lymphedema. All three of these options work best in a team environment where they are being managed before and after surgery.

    Recovery for Lymphedema Treatment

    Whatever path is chosen, most patients can look forward to a quick recovery. Most treatment options take about three to four hours to complete, and you can usually return home the next day. They typically involve small incisions, followed by a wrap to protect and compress the area that was treated. The patient returns to the doctor a week later to have the sutures removed.

    Expect to see results immediately, as the swelling will greatly reduce at first. Since lymph nodes are typically still dormant at the time of diagnosis and treatment, the arm may swell in the future, however, as they start functioning properly again, the swelling will recede once more.

    Due to advancements in less invasive treatment options, lymphedema is no longer a lifelong concern for life after breast cancer treatment.

    We are here to help.

    If you have questions about the MedStar Georgetown Cancer Institute or are ready to schedule a consultation with one of our specialists, call us at 202-295-0513.

  • April 11, 2017

    By MedStar Health

    Bariatric surgery has been available in the U.S. for more than 50 years, and surgeons are doing more every year. In fact, our team performed 336 of these procedures in 2016, compared with 257 in 2013.

    Still, bariatric surgery is still not well understood, and many people have questions about it.

    I’ve heard many. Two of the most frequent ones I get are, “Is bariatric surgery safe?” and “Will I be left with a lot of flabby skin?”

    Bariatric surgery, such as gastric bypass or sleeve gastrectomy, can be a lifesaver for people struggling with obesity and its side effects. So let’s get to the truth of some of the most common questions.

    LISTEN: Dr. Shope discusses bariatric surgery methods further in this Medical Intel podcast.

    Is bariatric surgery dangerous?

    Patients often tell me that friends and family worry they will die during bariatric surgery and try to discourage them from getting a procedure. I suspect this fear is a holdover from when the surgery was new.

    As with any surgical procedure, the risks from bariatric surgery were much greater when it was first developed. But with the advent of minimally invasive techniques, such as laparoscopic and robotic surgery, which come with fewer complications, the procedures’ safety has dramatically improved.

    In fact, the latest data show that bariatric surgery is safer than having your gallbladder removed. The mortality rate for bariatric surgery is 0.25 percent compared with 0.7 percent for gallbladder removal.

    And don’t forget that obesity also is dangerous, increasing the risk of life-threatening conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension, and even decreasing lifespan.

    The latest data shows that bariatric surgery is safer than having your gallbladder removed. via @MedStarWHC

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    Will I be left with a lot of excess skin after bariatric surgery?

    This is a complex issue and it’s specific to every individual. The bigger you are and the more weight you lose, the more excess skin you’ll have. But most patients find they have less excess skin than they expected.

    The best advice I can give to avoid excess skin is to maintain and increase muscle mass, giving the skin lean tissue to contract over. I’m not saying you need to become a body builder or look like a star athlete. But developing a fitness routine that promotes healthy muscle tone will help reduce excess skin.

    If you do have sagging skin that bothers you, you can explore body contouring, which is an umbrella term for procedures, such as tummy tucks and lifts to the upper arms, midsection, back, thighs, buttocks and hips.

    Will I just regain  the weight after weight loss surgery? 

    Everyone seems to knows someone who had bariatric surgery and gained all the weight back. But in reality, that’s pretty rare. A 2016 study found that only 3 percent of study participants who had gastric bypass regained most or all of the weight they lost after 10 years.

    Weight loss after bariatric surgery occurs on a curve. Weight drops rapidly right after surgery and continues for 18 months to two years. A little weight gain is expected after that, but then it should plateau. This is normal, and we’re talking about a few pounds, not a massive amount of weight (usually about 5 percent).

    When a patient does regain a considerable amount of weight, we first try to determine whether there was a problem with the surgery. For example, in gastric bypass, the surgeon reduces the size of the stomach and reconnects the small intestine to the new stomach, bypassing the original stomach and several feet of the small intestine. One rare complication of this surgery is gastrogastric fistula, in which food goes into the old stomach instead of the new stomach pouch, causing weight gain.

    Most weight gain can be traced back to dietary habits. People don’t come back for after-care appointments or follow diet recommendations, or they simply fall back into old habits. And while someone might go through all the pre-surgery education, their psychological relationship with food may not change post-surgery.

    Regaining all the weight can happen, but it’s rare. We’ll work with you and a dietitian to help you get back on track before you regain too much of the weight you worked so hard to lose.

    Is having weight loss surgery the easy way out?

    I’m amazed that in this day and age some people still think of surgery as the easy way out. There is nothing easy about bariatric surgery. People who have these procedures prepare for six months on average and then must change their lifestyle and diet after surgery. It’s a lot of work.

    The National Institutes of Health recognizes bariatric surgery as the only effective way to treat severe obesity and maintain long-term weight loss.

    Take your first step toward weight loss today.

    Attend Our Online Seminar

    Losing weight through diet and exercise can be extremely difficult. Many people experience the yo-yo effect, in which they lose and gain weight multiple times. This can wreak havoc with a person’s metabolism, making losing weight even more difficult. In fact, less than 5 percent of people who lose weight by diet and exercise are able to maintain long-term weight loss.

    And weight loss medications come with their own problems. Along with potential side effects, they only work as long as you take them. There’s no long-term weight loss effect.

    Will I develop a vitamin deficiency after weight loss surgery?  

    Vitamin deficiencies are a real concern after bariatric surgery. Your body will not be able to absorb them, as well as it used to. However, taking a daily multivitamin and following your dietary recommendations should ward off potential problems.

    Severe vitamin deficiencies don’t develop overnight, and we have processes in place to catch them early. We check your vitamin levels six months after surgery, at a year, then yearly after that. If your levels are low, we’ll work on it before it becomes a problem.

    Will I still be able to eat dessert or drink alcohol after bariatric surgery?  

    Yes. Because your body will process and absorb foods differently after surgery, we recommend that you not eat foods high in sugar and fat immediately after surgery or drink alcohol for two years. But after a while, you can have a piece of cake at a wedding or a glass of wine for your anniversary. You’ll need to eat and drink these items in moderation, but you can have them for special occasions. This is also a good guideline for people who just want to live a healthier lifestyle.

    If you have heard something fishy about bariatric surgery, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor. We’ve heard it all, and we won’t think your question is silly. If you’re considering bariatric surgery, it’s your right—and our job—to make sure you understand the ins and outs before you commit to preparing for and maintaining a healthier weight.

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  • April 06, 2017

    By MedStar Health

    Breast cancer patients who undergo mastectomies are often faced with the decision of how best to reconstruct their breasts. Currently, implant reconstruction is the most common way of rebuilding the shape of their breasts after surgery. However, one drawback of implants is that they typically need to be replaced every 10 to 15 years.

    An alternative to implant reconstruction that's growing in popularity is known as natural breast reconstruction, or breast reconstruction using natural tissue. This method uses skin and fat from certain body parts to create a natural-feeling breast.

    But what exactly does natural breast reconstruction entail, and is it the right choice for you?

    What Is Natural Breast Reconstruction?

    The human breast consists mainly of fat, especially after a woman's child-bearing age. At its core, natural breast reconstruction involves transplanting fat from one area of the body — such as thighs, buttocks and back — to another.

    Natural breast reconstruction is also known as DIEP flap, or deep inferior epigastric artery perforator flap. This procedure removes extra skin and fat from the lower abdominal area, where many women carry surplus tissue. However, the muscle and function of the abdominal area will still be maintained after the surgery.

    Once this tissue is removed, blood vessels from the tissue are attached to blood vessels in the breast area. The arteries and veins from the removed tissue are sewn to arteries and veins in the chest area using a microscope to restore blood flow to the tissue and make the transplant a success.

    Natural Breast Reconstruction Myths vs. Facts

    Because synthetic implants are still the prevailing choice for breast reconstruction, several myths have propagated throughout the medical community regarding the downsides of natural breast reconstruction. Many patients worry that the surgery will be too long, that the recovery will be too difficult, or that there will be a significant chance of failure.

    However, these concerns are usually unfounded. Typically, the surgery lasts about five hours when in the hands of an experienced physician. Patients usually recover in the hospital for two to three days, with nonopioid medications that mitigate the pain well.

    A full recovery typically occurs within two to six weeks, with an average recovery time of four weeks. This is only slightly longer than implant breast reconstruction, which has an average recovery time of three weeks.

    In addition, the risks of failure and complications are minimal. The failure rate of natural breast reconstruction is very low, at around 0.7 percent, and can be lowered with the right surgical team. The hernia rate from this type of operation is less than 2 percent.

    By dispelling these myths around natural breast reconstruction, an operation that once seemed scary becomes something realistic and tolerable, and perhaps preferable for certain situations.

    Making the Right Choice for You

    The benefits of a successful natural breast reconstruction are invaluable. Rebuilding breasts with their own body tissue provides patients significant improvements in their mental attitude and bodily sensation.

    Of course, there are real downsides to natural breast reconstruction surgery, including the risk of infection or serious bleeding, and not every patient is a good candidate for the surgery.

    However, if you are curious about natural breast reconstruction, schedule a consultation with an experienced breast reconstruction surgeon. They can help by answering questions and empowering you with the knowledge you need to make the best decision.

  • April 06, 2017

    By MedStar Health

    Physical activity is vital for overall health, including for a healthy spine. Most people can avoid chronic back or neck pain by maintaining an active lifestyle and making a few simple posture changes.  

    But what if you’re already experiencing neck or back pain? Is it too late to make a change?

    For most people, it’s never too late to improve spine health. via @MedStarWHC

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    I often see patients who come in with sudden, severe neck and back pain. It often flares up unexpectedly, such as when performing household chores. These patients often worry that they’ve damaged their spines. But in the vast majority of cases, physical therapy and sometimes non-narcotic medication will provide neck and back pain relief.

    Need a spine health check up? Schedule an visit with an orthopaedic specialist today!

    Request an Appointment

    Let’s take a look at how a healthy spine works and why physical therapy is so effective to help you recuperate from and prevent future back pain.

    Supporting your spine

    Maintaining a healthy spine depends upon strengthening the muscles that bear its weight. The muscles around your back (often called “core” muscles) take some of the load off the spine’s lumbar vertebrae. These five large bones provide a supporting frame for the spine, but they aren’t made to hold its weight.

    People experience back pain when their core muscles are too weak to support the lumbar vertebrae. If these vertebrae and the joints surrounding them bear too much weight over time, it can accelerate arthritis of the lower back, resulting in the sudden, intense pain I described earlier.    

    It’s important to exercise the core muscles around your abdomen and lower back to stay strong. Many back problems are caused by inactivity and smoking.  

    Inactivity and spine health

    Americans spend an average of nearly eight hours per day sitting. Given that most adults have desk jobs, that number isn’t too surprising. But prolonged periods of sedentary behavior can have surprisingly severe effects on your health, so much so that this group of conditions has been given a name: “sitting disease.” Sitting disease increases your risk of obesity, high blood pressure, heart attack, cancer and more. And it also affects your spine.  

    Did you know… “Americans spend an average of nearly eight hours per day sitting.” via @MedStarWHC

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    When you’re sitting, your core muscles aren’t being worked. They sit dormant, becoming weaker the less they’re used. Making this problem worse is the fact that many people have poor sitting posture. Slouching can make it more difficult for the core muscles to bear weight and causes issues with spinal problems over time.  

    Sedentary lifestyles are a common theme among my neck and back pain patients. When you’re younger, you can live an inactive life for years without back pain. But those years are silently taking a toll on your spine.  

    If you must sit for most of the day, you can take proactive steps to guard against future back troubles. And if you already have back pain, these techniques are especially important to prevent it from getting worse.  

    Developing healthy spine habits  

    You can keep your spine healthy and avoid serious back pain by making a habit of exercising and stretching. I tell my patients they need to make core muscle exercises a part of their daily routine, just like brushing your teeth. Strengthening the core muscles helps keep your spine healthy. It’s that simple. Some exercises that I recommend include modified planks, the “superman” stretch or yoga. You may need to exercise a specific subset of core muscles depending on your condition, so ask your physical therapist or doctor which exercises you can perform to improve your spine health.  

    If you sit at work, consider getting a standing desk. My patients rave about how much better their backs feel after they start using one. According to a growing body of research, reducing your sedentary time with a standing desk can also reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity, help you focus and avoid feeling tired while improving your mood at work.  

    When you do sit, make sure to use proper posture. Keep your back straight and shoulders back. This posture helps maintain the natural curvature of the spine. You also should change your sitting position regularly, and get up to move around at least once per hour.    

    sitting posture correction
    A healthy sitting posture. Your head to kneecaps should make less of a letter C and more of a letter L.

    You should be on your way to a healthier spine if you stick to these habits. But if you’re still experiencing pain, or your pain begins to radiate into your arms or legs, you could have a back condition that requires more intensive treatment.  

    If you have back pain, or sit for long periods of time, don’t wait for the problem to get worse. Be proactive about your spine health – you’ll feel the benefits of being flexible and active, and enjoy years free of back pain.  

    Request an appointment to discuss physical therapy options or call 240-788-2660 to learn more.

    Request an Appointment