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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Decisions Parents Make: Use all the facts

Parents struggle with decisions

I was recently asked to clarify a comment I made on facebook, and the comment deserves more than a quick facebook blurb.


The original post:

If you ever plan on having kids, PLEASE make sure you educate yourself about this!
My reply:
This is one way to use "studies" to distort facts. This article has so many inaccuracies I don't know where to start. 

One of the great things about our country is we have freedom of speech.  I highly support everyone being able to state their opinion, including those who disagree with my opinion.  But I also think we all need to look at opinions as opinions, not as hard fact.  Read articles critically and form your own opinion. Read articles from both sides of the line before you draw your conclusion.  When authors have an agenda (which is why most writers write, including myself here) you must be able to see when they are able to share both sides of a story and when they are simply stating the facts that support their cause.  I am not saying that it is wrong to just state your opinion, just that readers must know how to filter the information. I personally dislike/hate when an argument is actually based on emotion and fears, but comes off as science.  Too many parents are made to feel guilty because they have made a choice for their child that differs from a friend or relative. They read something that differs from what they did and they feel like they made the wrong choice. Regret is a dangerous thing, and is often misplaced.


The intent of my facebook comment above is not to support or discourage circumcision, but rather to warn that when authors have a strong agenda, the methods of persuasion often cause doubt and guilt in readers. I do not find this to be helpful in any way. Data and statistics can be used to distort reality, especially when studies are hand picked to only discuss the ones that support your cause and the ones supporting the contrary are omitted. This includes not only circumcision, but also breastfeeding, vaccines, home schooling, discipline, religion, government, and many, many other topics. 


The first clue that this is an article with a cause is the title and subtitle: “Myths about Circumcision You Likely Believe  CIrcumcision does great harm to babies”.  Simply reading this title alerts the reader that the author is going to persuade you that circumcision is a bad thing.  Their argument is one side of the circumcision debate, but you need to read the counter point from someone who supports circumcision before you make a decision.  

As a disclaimer and credentials for why I feel I can give an educated opinion:  I am a pediatrician who has performed many circumcisions during my 13+ years of private practice. I let parents make the decision to do or not do the circumcision and do not try to sway their decision in any way. I invite parents to watch every time, and nearly half of boys have one or both parents present. Typically parents are impressed by the overall brief procedure. Many have commented that it wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be. I have never had anyone comment how bad it was and have never had anyone (parents, nurses, medical students, or nursing students) become physically ill from watching. I admit that it could be awkward for a parent to express negative comments, so they could simply keep their thoughts to themselves, but experience tells me that when people are upset about things, they tend to complain.  So the many positive comments without any negative comments supports that parents have a generally good feeling about their decision even after watching the procedure.  Note: parents are self selecting here. The parents who don’t want a circumcision in the first place don’t agree to the procedure, and the parents who don’t want to watch are not able to comment on the actual procedure.
Starting with myth 1.  The foreskin is the distal skin of the penis and is removed during the circumcision. It is true that it is adhered to the glans of the penis in a newborn, and there are several means to break these adhesions. This is the most painful part of the circumcision in my opinion (but with adequate pain relief, this pain is diminished/eliminated-- see #3).  As for the surface area of the foreskin in an adult male, I do not see how that accounts for anything about a newborn’s circumcision. A newborn does not have 15 square inches removed. Adult males have wide variation in penile size, and therefore foreskin size.  What has been documented is the more foreskin surface area, the more likely a male will suffer from sexually transmitted diseases:


Myth #2.  Procedures hurt, but that doesn’t mean pain isn’t managed. I agree that anesthesia helps, and this has been shown by several studies. The small study by Lander the author mentions shows that the best form of pain control is with the ring block, which injects lidocaine around the base of the penis. However the only form of anesthetic mentioned in the Myth article is the dorsal block, stating that it is the most common. In reading the article by Narvaez, it is stated that one patient in Lander's study suffered a seizure. Reading Lander’s summary, it appears the baby had apnea and loss of tone in the limbs. While this could represent a seizure, it could also be a choking episode, which is common with newborns feeding or crying. I have seen these in many newborns not associated with any procedure. It is difficult to presume it was a seizure from this documentation, and the conclusion of a direct cause/effect from the procedure cannot  be certain. The small sample size of the study limits the validity and generalizability of any findings, including problems encountered. I personally use sucrose pacification (sugar water on a parent or nurse finger or a pacifier) plus a ring block. Neither of these were mentioned by the author. Sucrose pacification has been shown to help with painful procedures the first 4 months of life. I use it to decrease the pain associated with the injection of lidocaine for the ring block and throughout the procedure. I find that babies tolerate the procedure very well the large majority of the time. What also wasn’t mentioned is that there are many types of circumcisions. Training of the physician typically dictates method used, but they each have their own risks and benefits and pain scores.
Myth #3.  See also #2. I do not know where the 45% of doctors using anesthesia number comes from. In my geographic area at the 4 hospitals in which I take care of newborns, anesthesia of some sort is used by all physicians doing circumcisions to my knowledge. In my area it is typically the pediatrician who performs the circumcision, and few obstetricians do it, not OBs.  As for it taking 30 minutes to achieve anesthesia, I have no idea where that number came from.  Local anesthetics have rapid onset once injected. Lidocaine takes 0.5-1 minute, prilocaine 1-2 minutes.  Topical preparations do take longer and should be placed at least 30 minutes prior to the procedure, and they are much less effective in general than injectable anesthetics.  
Myth #4. I cannot understand how this can be reliably tested. The process of birth itself is traumatic. The large majority of boys in the United States are circumcised, but I do not need to treat the majority of boys for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The choice of pain relief by Taddio in his studies (referenced in the Myth article) was a topical anesthetic, which is not as effective as other forms of anesthesia. This highlights that you can formulate the methods of your study to get the answer you are looking for, not necessarily the whole truth of the matter. If Taddio really wanted to prove that anesthesia made a difference, the choice of anesthesia should have either included several types ~ or at least the most efficacious, not the least.  Linking long term effects to a single newborn experience would be impossible in my humble opinion because there are too many confounding factors and it is impossible to isolate a single cause/effect relationship.  This is simply a ploy to get parents to regret a choice they have made for their children. This is horrendous in my opinion. We have many opportunities to feel guilt, please do not try to make parents feel guilty about a choice they have made that can impact the health of their son.
Myth #5. Yes, some babies sleep comfortably during the procedure. I have many parents that can agree with this statement after watching their sons undergo the circumcision.  Their babies did not cry themselves to sleep or go into a shock state. They were just sleepy babies. Most do not sleep ~ after all we are stimulating them by moving them around, washing the area, and otherwise touching them.
Myth #6. There are risks to all procedures. A physician should discuss the risks and benefits prior to the procedure. Parents have the right and responsibility to make choices for their children.  Of the complications listed, these are not unique to circumcised males. 

  • Meatal stenosis is a narrowing of the urethra that both boys and girls can have, not necessarily after circumcision.  It can be a complication of circumcision from irritation, but is rare.
  • Adhesions are NORMAL.  I mentioned above (Myth 1) that they must be broken to remove the foreskin. Without a circumcision they tend to release by 6 years of age. Some circumcised boys re-attach the foreskin without any need to do anything since they typically release on their own by 6 years of age. This is especially common if the pubic fat pad pushes the skin of the penis up and buries the penis (see next item).  While some physicians recommend breaking these adhesions, I have found that it is not required to break these attachments in most cases. This has been validated by Ponsky et al at Penile adhesions after neonatal circumcision. Rarely boys develop bridging adhesions which are different, and these do need to be repaired. 
  • Buried penis is common when infants have a thick fat pad at the base of the penis. This happens in both circumcised and uncircumcised boys. It has nothing to do with the amount of foreskin removed. The worst I ever saw was in an uncircumcised toddler. He suffered complications to the point where he needed a circumcision as a preschooler to resolve the problems. This required general anesthesia which involved greater risk than neonatal circumcision.
  • Infections are possible any time the skin is broken, yet I have never seen an infected circumcision. It is a risk that should be discussed prior to the procedure so parents know how to identify it early and seek help.  Poor sterile technique has been associated with infection and has made the news earlier this year. If done in a hospital setting with proper technique this risk is minimized. Those having a bris should find a qualified mohel with a good record for safety and proper hygiene.
  • Death is very rare. Risk factors, such as family history of bleeding disorders should be discussed prior to the procedure. Vitamin K should be given prior to procedures to decrease risk of bleeding. After the circumcision the site should be routinely checked by trained persons to assess for bleeding. See also infection risk above.
Of course no mention of benefits was made by the author. This unbalanced view does not allow a full disclosure of both sides. 

  • A significant decrease in sexually transmitted diseases has been shown among circumcised men. 
  • Urinary tract infection risk can be decreased in infants. 
  • Phimosis and balanoposthitis are infections caused by improper cleaning of the uncircumcised foreskin. I have seen phimosis once when working as a nurse assistant in a nursing home. It was painful and a horrible consequence of care takers not knowing how to care for the uncircumcised penis. Can this be prevented? Yes. But in our country where most men are circumcised, it is not common knowledge. 
  • Improved hygiene in general is easier in circumcised males. I have instructed many families on how to care for the penis, but find that many boys don’t care for themselves properly as they become independent in the shower. Parents need to discuss this with their uncircumcised sons often!
  • A decrease in penile cancer risk after circumcision.  

My intent on writing this is not to support or condemn circumcision, it is to simply show how only looking at one side of any conflict can lead to confusion and misinformation.  Learn to look at both sides of an argument to make a better informed decision that is right for you! Don't judge others for their decisions, and don't feel regret for decisions you made based on the information you had!