A ‘natural’ way to manage teething pain has no plausible mechanism.
Parents, especially new parents like myself, are a vulnerable group. We tend to be full of anxiety that we are doing the ‘right thing’ by our children. Wherever you find a vulnerable group like this you also tend to find those who prey on such fears.
Being a new parent and a skeptic I have been on guard regarding dubious advice and practices, but so far I have actually been pleasantly surprised: I have not, as far as I’ ve noticed, been subjected to any dubious advice. But recently I was confronted by a practice of a fellow new parent that I found a little disturbing. I’ m taking about using necklaces of amber beads to reduce the pain of teething for babies.
Teething can be an especially stressful time for parents and children. The child may be experiencing pain as the new teeth break through the gums; this means an irritable child and frazzled parents. Anything that promises to relieve or prevent this harrowing time is gratefully embraced.
On to the amber beads. This practice disturbs me for several reasons. First is safety. The necklace, if left on the baby for long periods, may pose a strangling hazard if it becomes caught on something. Most advertise that they are made to break easily to prevent this and that the beads are individually knotted onto the necklace to prevent scattering on breakage. However, this still seems to leave a broken string of beads in reach of a baby, and as most people know – anything a baby can get its hands on goes straight into the mouth. So choking is also a concern.
Now, I’m not one to be a worry wart over every little potential hazard; used correctly under parental supervision I suspect that the likelihood of a tragedy of this kind is low. But not zero. This, coupled with the low probability that the necklace actually does anything, is what worries me. The second disturbing thing is that parents are accepting that the necklaces work via word of mouth, and apparently not consulting their doctors before subjecting their child to an intervention of unknown safety and efficacy.
I have three main points I believe parents should consider before trying these beads (in addition to the physical safety above). The first relates to basic plausibility. There are several explanations for how the beads are supposed to work floating around the intertubes, many of the tinfoil hat brigade variety ([… it generates pain relieving magnetic field[). Only one explanation I have found makes biological sense so that’s the one I’ll be focusing on.
Baltic amber is known to contain between three and eight percent succinic acid. According to proponents this is released from the beads and into your baby. The succinic acid then allegedly has an analgesic effect and so reduces the pain of teething. Here is where my first point regarding plausibility comes in.
Amber is tough. Really tough. This is a material that has persisted for thousands and in some cases millions of years unchanged. Suffering through innumerable climatic cycles of heating and cooling. Yet this same tough unchanging material will happily give up its chemical components upon the gentle heating it receives on being placed next to your baby’s skin? Colour me unconvinced. I found a 2010 paper on volatile degradation products from Baltic amber that doesn’t mention succinic acid as an identified component. Related to this point, amber has a hardness on the Mohs scale of between 1 and 3. Baltic amber, which is usually touted as the therapeutic variety (because of the high succinic acid content), is at the high end of this scale at 2 – 2.5. To put this in perspective, Tin has a hardness of about 1.5 and Gold is 2.5-3. But let’s say for argument’s sake that clinically relevant amounts of succinic acid are released by the amber and absorbed by your baby’s skin.
My second point then, relates directly to the claims made for succinic acid. Succinic acid is made in the body (and in plants) as part of the citric acid cycle (aka the Krebs cycle). It is also used in the food and beverage industry as a food acid (additive #363 to be precise). Interestingly, in this capacity there are recommendations from some quarters to avoid the substance ([avoid it, banned in some countries[, warnswww.foodreactions.org).
Even so, apart from its early use as a topical treatment for rheumatic pain, there is no evidence that I could find (searching Pubmed at least, where I would expect a decent study to be referenced) that it is effective as either an anti-inflammatory or general analgesic. Let me be clear on that. I don’t mean low-quality evidence, I don’t mean small, poorly designed trials with equivocal effects, I mean nothing. Zip. Nada. In fact if anyone knows of any let me know because I find this complete lack quite surprising. I’m open to the idea that I was looking in the wrong place or was using incorrect search terms. So, unless there is late breaking news, it fails on that count as well. But what do we care about evidence of efficacy anyway? Let’s throw this point out too, and move on to my final point to consider.
Let’s say that (a): the beads do indeed release succinic acid into your baby and (b): this succinic acid has an analgesic effect once it enters your baby’s body. Doesn’t the very fact that an unknown amount of a drug is being put into your baby’s body bother you? (If it has biologic activity that can be used in a therapeutic fashion, it’s a drug, no quibbling on that point please.)
What is that I hear? It’s natural? Oh, well, that’s okay then. No wait, it’s not. I don’t care what the origin of a compound is, the question is what are its effects on the body and do the benefits outweigh the risks. Let’s replace succinic acid with some other naturally occurring substance, salicylic acid. This is a compound with known anti-inflammatory properties. Would you be happy with a product that introduced unknown levels of this compound into your baby? What if I said that overdoses with this compound could lead to a one percent chance of death (emedicine.medscape.com/article/818242-overview#a0199)? It’s natural; it’s also the precursor to acetylsalicylic acid, otherwise known as Aspirin.
Now, lest I be accused of unnecessary fear-mongering and drawing false comparisons I would like to admit that at present there is no evidence to suggest that succinic acid is hazardous, nor even that it is potentially hazardous. This does not detract from my main point however. It isn’t whether this particular compound is safe or not but that the reasoning around its use (ie [It’s got to be good, it’s natural[) is faulty and cannot be used as a substitute for evidence.
Based on the complete lack of plausibility on any level of efficacy any potential for harm, however small, must tip the balance of the equation away from the use of this product. But don’t trust me; talk to your doctor. I suspect though that given the complete lack of reliable information on this topic they will be left to rely on their own philosophy of harm vs benefit. In the final analysis, there are not always clear answers, but developing good critical thinking skills will at least provide you with a small light in the darkness.